Want to escape temporarily from news stories about the carnage in Ukraine, the originalist black hole of the Supreme Court, accelerating inflation and the toxic swill of MAGAism? Here are four novels with the potential to take you away from it all.
The Rent Collector by Camron Wright is a gift for lovers of literature, people who take infinite pleasure from literary allusions to great writers as a means of understanding universal challenges. Ki Lim and Sang Ly live with their baby, Nisay, in a make-shift three-sided shack on the periphery of Stung Meanchey, the largest garbage dump in Cambodia. Filth, disease, gang violence abound. Ki and Lang Ly must pick through fresh truckloads of trash each day for bits and pieces of recyclables that can be sold for enough money to feed the family and survive another day. Sopeap is a drunk old woman, rough and mean, who monthly collects their paltry rent, which they often don’t have. Amidst the crushing squalor, Sang Ly wants to learn how to read and write so her son can have a better future. Curiously the mysterious Sopeap holds the key to that ambition. This is a story about love, community and optimism that left an indelible impression on me.
The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Meredith Morris is based on the life of a Slovakian Jew named Ludwig “Lale” Sokolov, sent to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration/extermination camps in spring of 1942. His fluency in several languages leads the German SS to tap him for the job of tattooing identification numbers on the arms of the many thousands of newly arrived prisoners entering the camps. His “elevated” position brings with it some modest relief from the privations of hard labor, lack of warmth and food, to which most prisoners were subjected. But he remained exposed to the barbarism of their daily lives. He found ways to help his fellow prisoners, regularly sharing food with them. In the summer of 1942, he became enamored of a young girl, Gita, whom he was tattooing. Amidst the horrors and brutality of the camps, they found ways to steal moments together. Their love survived the war, and afterward they found each other again and were married. Gita died in 2003, when Lale decided finally to tell their story. This riveting piece of historical fiction is about man’s bestiality, but it is also about love and the triumph of the human spirit . You can’t fail to be moved by it.
Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead, recommended by reader Margot T., is a vast novel, in its complex narrative, its vision, and time and geographic span. The central character, Marian Graves, and her twin brother, Jamie, are brought up by their inattentive uncle and, left to their own devices, seek to find their way in the world. The setting is Prohibition-era Montana. Marian’s dream is to be a pilot and eventually to fly the great circle from South Pole to North Pole. Jamie is an artist, with his own large vision, yearning to expand the limitations of the canvas to express something deep and larger than life. Shipstead is a beautiful writer, sweeping through the history of women in aviation, detailing the untamed beauty of the streams and mountains of Montana and the remote and forbidding glaciers of Antarctica. The twins’ intimate stories are explored along with those of others in their lives. Marian’s 70-decade history is intertwined with the life of Hadley, a young, hip actress later starring in a film being made about Marian’s life. The interwoven themes – loss of parents, love affairs, career challenges, family pathologies and more –make this large novel hard to put down. Don’t be put off by the length; it flies by. Pun intended.
Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead. Impressed as I was by Great Circle, I decided to get better acquainted with the author and picked up this, her first book. Unlike her later epic, Seating Arrangements is set in one place and covers one weekend. The novel covers three days of the lives of the wealthy Wasp-y Van Meter family, outwardly leading “perfect lives.” Daphne, one of four daughters, has made a “perfect match,” and the family has gathered at their sprawling island summer home for the wedding. But the “perfect” bride is several months pregnant, one of her sisters has just had an abortion and been dumped by her boyfriend, father Winn is lusting after one of the bridesmaids and struggles with the expectations of his social station. Shipstead keeps the narrative taut, the characters’ pretensions funny and their inner lives increasingly chaotic. Her writing is replete with fine prose, keen observations of human behavior, gentle satire, and the kind of understanding of marital relationships that is very deep for a woman still in her thirties. An enticing read.
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