This installment: a difficult, rewarding novel; a lively one about Orthodox Jews; another difficult, rewarding novel (!); charming essays by a favorite Bosnian-American writer; Typhoid Mary brought to life in fiction; and a Gothic Romance.
The Blue Book by A. N. Kennedy
True confessions: I had a hard time with this book, wanted to put it down initially when I encountered the shifting points of view (who was this “you” the narrator was addressing?) and in the end didn’t embrace the characters fully. So why am I telling you about it? Because it’s so fascinating. It takes place on a cruise ship, an intense setup from the start. Elizabeth comes with Derek, who plans to propose, but it’s clear that she has little patience or affection for him. Another passenger engages her in the boarding line with intimate, mysterious, and shocking words. We discover that this fellow, Arthur, is her ex and they’ve worked together. He’s a magician/”psychic” who brings the bereaved comfort by contacting their dead. Not surprisingly, it’s a cruise from hell, as Derek is flattened by seasickness, Elizabeth feels guilty every time she flees their fetid cabin and always aware of the pull of Arthur. A sweet older couple keeps trying to befriend her but she resists them too. Equally odd ending, but I found the material so haunting, I’m glad I persevered.
The Outside World by Tova Mirvish
If you’ve ever been curious about the world of Orthodox Jews, here’s a lively novel that plays with its complexities and paradoxes entertainingly. Bryan becomes Baruch as he flees to Israel for a life of scholarship rather than going to Columbia as his loosely Orthodox parents had expected. Tzippy, in a very Orthodox household, is due to get married but all the prospects are schlubs. She flees to Israel as well and their rebellious souls find each other. Back in the States, he has to earn a living so goes to work for Tzippy’s father Herschel in the kosher food industry in Memphis, no less. No time for study, and it turns out Herschel is a wild card with ever-expanding schemes not fully thought out. It’s a very rough ride for the two but at the awkward , almost improvisational Seder at the very end reveals, they’ll be all right.
Umbrella by Will Self
The first thing you should know is that this is a difficult, often baffling, but very rewarding novel. The set up: what seems like a stream of internal dialogue, free association, very few paragraph breaks and no chapters. Song lyrics, cockney riffs, obscure British references, all mixed together. And as soon as the reader gets a slippery handle on the narrative it’s shifted, seamlessly, to someone else’s grotesque reality. Characters emerge through this fog: a psychiatrist, his patient (a woman in a madhouse but misdiagnosed), various relatives, in the trenches of WWI, and more. If I didn’t try to figure it out, it carried me along with vivid images and almost cinematic glimpses into details of history, like the terrible side effects of weapons manufacturing, or the uses of L-dopa to bring shut-down mental patients back to life. Worth the effort, if you’re up for it.
The Book of My Lives by Aleksandar Hemon
I love this Bosnian-American writer and this book of autobiographical essays displays all his charms. He’s a combination of cocky, self-deprecating, funny, and painfully honest. All the stuff of life that bring me close to a writer, like pieces about dogs, relationships, and food. A few harrowing chapters on war and a heartbreaking one about the death of his baby daughter. What good company Hemon provides. Highly recommended.
Fever by Mary Beth Keane
Mary, as in the infamous Typhoid Mary, is a strong, tough, independent Irish immigrant. She lives with a man in an unmarried state and makes her living as a cook. Not the ideal life, perhaps, but doable. Until the health department tracks her down: she’s an asymptomatic carrier. She’s in effect quarantined on a tiny island right across from NYC. What happened to her rights of appeal? Why doesn’t her lover stay in touch? It’s a grim, isolated life, but eventually she’s sprung and guess what? She goes back to cooking; it’s her passion and a much better livelihood than laundress. A sad end when she’s caught again as head cook in a hospital, no less. Interesting glimpses into her interior tussles between survival and conscience, as she broods over the death of a child she loved but doesn’t let it stop her. History comes to life!
The Gilly Salt Sisters by Tiffany Baker
So here’s one of those books that teeters on the edge of Gothic Romance but had enough odd local material to keep me going. On the New England coast in a small village, those eponymous sisters have a weird reputation. Every year salt thrown on the bonfire portends the future of the year to come. Jo, the oldest, bears scars from a dreadful barn fire but keeps the business barely alive, tending the salt marshes with their different-colored ponds. The younger sister Claire is married to the local aristocrat who wants to buy out the farm. Whit, her power-driven spouse, knocks up a teenager who flees to the family farm. There’s also a lovelorn priest and a Big Family Secret, too. Despite the Perils of Pauline style plot, I liked learning about salt and I had to keep going to find out what happened. Good escape reading.
Back next Monday