Summer reading 2015 would not be complete without Go Set a Watchman, the book that Harper Lee reportedly wrote before she published To Kill a Mockingbird. It is told from the perspective of Atticus Finch’s daughter Scout (now Jean Louise) some 20 years after the time frame of To Kill a Mockingbird. The Guardian and other critics have dismissed it as having little aesthetic value. To the contrary, I found it an interesting complement to the idealized portrayal of Atticus Finch as a stand-up lawyer in a lonely fight against Southern racism. The Watchman portrayal has Finch attending a meeting of the White Citizens Council, rationalizing it lamely as a way of seeing what others were up to. Watchman still lacks sophistication in its analysis and perspective, but it goes well beyond the simple good-versus-evil formula that has enchanted young people for generations.
The Space Between Us is a compelling novel set in contemporary Bombay, by Thrity Umrigar. The centuries old caste system may be outlawed, but the effects of rigid stratification remain. Focusing on the relationship between a longtime housekeeper, who struggles for survival in the slums, and her employer, this book has the appeal of Upstairs, Downstairs, but is much grittier, and the families’ interactions with each other are much more predestined and ultimately tragic than the PBS saga.
Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins, a saga that encapsulates British history through four generations of an English family. It is a sequel to Atkinson’s Life After Life, which I have not read, and doesn’t seem to need it. A God in Ruins is not straight-line but goes back and forth among the generations, revealing the essence of the characters slowly, while driving the story line and resulting in a satisfying read.
A similar approach is taken by William Martin in Back Bay, published way back in 1979 but recently recommended by a friend. This is the first of three books in a series in which the protagonist is Peter Fallon, a doctoral student at Harvard. His research into a highly valuable tea set created by Paul Revere takes him into the dark corners of the lives of a wealthy old Boston family stretching from 18th century. There is crime, sex, danger, gossip, poetry, exclusive clubs, alcoholism, all making it a really good yarn. If you like stories set in the streets and neighborhoods of your hometown, this is really fun.
Also set in Boston is Anita Diamant’s The Boston Girl. Its story is supposedly prompted by the recollections of an 85-year-old elderly woman, daughter of Jewish immigrants living in the North End. It is a classic immigrant story that lacks the depth of Diamant’s The Red Tent, but I was attracted to it because my mother-in-law lived the life Diamant describes, in the same locations, surrounded by the same characters. In fact, my mother-in-law, Bea Barron, actually wrote an unpublished account of growing up Jewish in the North End, which could easily have provided the essence of Diamant’s lightweight fictional version. As the kids say, Bea’s story was “for real.”
Finally, Elizabeth Alexander’s The Light of the World has been referred to as a grief memoir. Alexander, a professor of poetry at Yale, celebrates the love of her life, who died suddenly and, shockingly, right after his 50th birthday party. Her husband, Ficre Ghebreyesus , was a painter, chef and co-owner of an Eritrean restaurant. The depth of Alexander’s loss and the pain of the grieving process is heightened by the detail, color, scents, tastes and texture of their shared life together, captured by her poet’s eye. This book is a gripping reminder that great love at some point means great loss. Alexander’s memoir compels the reader to pay more attention to the details of daily life, the “little things” that add up to shared experiences and imprint rich memories in the annals of a deep relationship.
I wish you extended summer days and hours of pleasurable reading.
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