Vi proponiamo il primo dei due articoli dedicati alle letture estive consigliate da Oprah Winfrey sul suo fantasmagorico Book Club:
- Kings of the Earth By Jon Clinch (416 pages; Random House)
For his acclaimed debut, Finn, Jon Clinch borrowed from Mark Twain, telling the story of Huckleberry Finn’s malicious father. In his masterful and compassionate new novel, Kings of the Earth, Clinch borrows again, this time from a true-life case of possible fratricide in 1990. Three elderly, semiliterate brothers live in squalor on a ramshackle dairy farm in central New York state. They barely wash, their coveralls are splattered in cow manure, and their tiny house is a fetid mess. Strangest of all, they share a bed—and on a summer night one dies from what the local medical examiner calls strangulation. The prismatic narrative shifts time and point of view, and Clinch easily slips into the voices of his diverse cast of characters—a nosy, good-hearted neighbor, a police investigator struggling to do the right thing, and the brothers’ drug-dealing nephew. Through evocative descriptions of the rural landscape—”a countryside full of that same old homegrown desolation”—and by imbuing these odd men with a gentle nobility and an “antique strangeness,” Clinch has created a haunting, suspenseful story. (Taylor Antrim)
- The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake By Aimee Bender (304 pages; Doubleday)
At age 8, Rose Edelstein discovers she can taste feelings in food—lonely pie, adulterous roast beef, resentment soup—whatever angst or elation the cook might have experienced while preparing the meal. Weird for any kid, yes. But when a family like the Edelsteins is serving up its own wacky stew of alienation and contradiction—from the taciturn father, who “always seemed a little like a guest,” to the misanthropic brother, a physics prodigy with KEEP OUT posted (in 17 languages) on his bedroom door—having the ability to sense the dissonance between emotion and behavior can be especially painful. It’s no wonder Rose’s insights and subsequent psychic ramblings land her in the ER. Thankfully, George Malcolm, an adorable science whiz, comes to the rescue, simply by believing her. Voracious for human connection, Rose comes of age while unraveling family secrets as strangely lucid as they are nightmarish. At its core, Aimee Bender’s novel The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake encourages us all to make the most of our unique gifts while still finding a way to live in the so-called real world. ( Kristy Davis)
- Someone Knows My Name By Lawrence Hill (512 pages; Norton)
When it was published in Canada in 2007, The Book of Negroes—named for a historical document that listed every slave who sailed to Nova Scotia under British protection—became an instant, prizewinning hit. Published here as Someone Knows My Name, Ontario native Lawrence Hill’s novel was also well received, if far more quietly. Two titles, one mesmerizing story: Aminata Diallo is abducted from her West African home at age 11, forced to walk in a “coffle,” a line of slaves who are sold off one by one. Aminata is anything but meek, however, and her fearlessness is both a liability and an asset. When she speaks out, she is sometimes punished or raped, but that same strong personality wins her friends and protectors when she reaches South Carolina and Manhattan. That she is a skilled “baby catcher,” having learned midwifery from her mother back home, also increases her usefulness and status. Make no mistake: This is a gritty, at times almost too detailed, tale—after page upon page describing abuse and cruelty, a reader might almost become inured to Aminata’s suffering. Still, she is an admirable heroine, and Hill’s depiction of her journey to freedom is a powerful tale of pride and perseverance. Whatever you want to call it.
- If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This By Robin Black (288 pages; Random House)
“It took me eight years to write the ten stories here,” says Robin Black in the acknowledgments of her debut collection, If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This. It shows. This book is not a fast read. Rather, it offers the kind of storytelling that’s so deft, so understated, and so compelling that you have to slow down to savor each vignette: “Only my old yellow beach chair remains beside that empty space, out of season and left behind, improbably vivid, improbably bright, against the autumn hues, against the failing day.” Poetics aside, Black’s characters are conventional, like people we know—the soccer mom, the teenage daughter, the guy next door—but their tales vibrate with aberrant energy. In “Gaining Ground,” a single mother struggles to make meaning out of the senseless actions of her insane father. It begins: “My dad died on the night my bathwater ran with an electric current in it. Or maybe it was the other way around. My water ran electric on the night my father died.” Fans of Mary Gaitskill, Amy Bloom, and Miranda July will feel like they’ve found gold in a river when they discover Robin Black; she’s a nervy new writer to watch. (Kristy Davis)
- My Name Is Mary Sutter By Robin Oliveira (384 pages; Viking)
The title of Robin Oliveira’s debut historical novel, My Name Is Mary Sutter, perfectly evokes its eponymous heroine’s style: clear, determined, and, unlike most women of the Civil War era, unapologetically direct. Expected, at most, to follow her mother into local midwifery, Mary has the nerve to want to be a “real” doctor. (“No woman is a surgeon,” chides even her admiring twin sister, Jenny.) When Mary’s beloved, Thomas, devastates her by choosing the more conventional Jenny as his wife, Mary sets out for Washington, D.C.; perhaps there she can heal herself as well as those wounded in war. Her heartbreak may have given her compassion equal to her excellent medical skills—both of which endear her to two male surgeons along the way—but Mary (who’s nothing if not plucky) struggles mightily to achieve her dream. When news of her good works in a D.C. hospital finally wins her a meeting with President Lincoln, he declares: “I have more faith in that young woman than I do in most of my generals.” We, of course, felt that way about Mary all along. (Sara Nelson)
- The Madonnas of Echo Park By Brando Skyhorse (199 pages; Free Press)
Culture, identity, and politics are just a few of the threads masterfully woven through the partly autobiographical novel of linked stories that is The Madonnas of Echo Park. Author Brando Skyhorse—so named because his mother revered the famous actor—grew up in the largely Mexican-American L.A. neighborhood of the title, which explains his understanding of its residents: among them a gang member, a day laborer, and a little girl tragically in the wrong place at the wrong time. Far from stock, Skyhorse’s characters also include an iconoclastic bus driver who considers himself more American than Mexican and rails against newcomers, illegal or no, and a maid who has one complex relationship with her gringa employer. (“When men want relief they hire a whore,” she observes. “When women want relief they hire a cleaning lady.”) What happens to a neighborhood that’s overrun by gentrification and warring intracultural factions? Violence, for one thing—but also, finally, in Skyhorse’s indelible storytelling, something that begins to look like hope.
- Dombey and Son By Charles Dickens (1040 pages; Wordsworth Classics)
Dombey and Son, the hidden gem even Dickens fans may have missed, combines a rollicking, biting sense of humor with nuanced psychological insights that feel surprisingly modern in their attitudes toward women. The title itself is an ironic joke: Successful businessman Paul Dombey neglects and mistreats his daughter, Florence, the true “son” of the title, until both his business and their relationship are nearly ruined. If Florence is a typical 19th-century heroine, a little too sweetly perfect to be believed, strong women abound in these pages. The linchpin is Mr. Dombey’s second wife, Edith, trapped in marriage to a man she despises; she is a riveting, tragic figure in whom generosity combines with pride, avarice with integrity, self-awareness with intransigence. She may have to depend on men financially, but she’s their equal for good or ill, and she knows it. As she says about her husband, “I will try, then, to forgive him his share of blame. Let him try to forgive me mine!” As usual in Dickens’s work, much of the reading pleasure resides in the supporting cast and subplots, and the men here are endearing—from Florence’s little brother, who dies too young to be his father’s heir, to her hapless suitor, Mr. Toots, whose self-deprecating refrain, “It’s of no consequence,” hides a world of hurt. But it is the wives, sisters, mothers, and discarded mistresses who control the plot and break your heart. (Liza Nelson)