Spring arrives – not a moment too soon – in pinks and purples and yellows and whites. We’ve been waiting! It’s time for a new book, too. Today’s post features four novels, a short story collection, and a memoir, all of them as fresh and engaging as the season. Spring Break bonus: two of the books are perfect to read with your middle schooler or teen!
The most satisfying book I’ve read in ages, and my top pick for Spring 2018, is The Hollow Land, by Jane Gardam – a gentle, extraordinary, light-filled work set in the timeless English countryside. You might know Gardam from her acclaimed Old Filth trilogy about an old Brit and his wife who return to England after living the expat life in Hong Kong. In Old Filth, Gardam makes you care more about the decline of the British empire than you ever thought you would, and she’s even better at making you care about the old Brit and his wife. It’s both strange and real how deep love and deep loneliness can co-exist in long-term marriages. The Hollow Land is a simpler tale. The Bateman family – “London folk” – plan a summer vacation in the English countryside, renting a cottage nestled in among farms for some peace and quiet. They don’t exactly get peace and quiet, but they do embrace country life – slowly – and return every summer. Their son Harry falls in with a local lad, Bell Teesdale, and the two become inseparable. The boys evade the not-so-watchful eyes of their parents and ride bikes, explore caves, get into various flavors of mischief. They don’t much like Poppet, the daughter of a friend who comes to visit – until, of course, one of them does. Harry and Bell and Poppet do what children sadly, magnificently, do: they grow up. The Hollow Land won the Whitbread Award for best novel for young people in 1981 and has only recently been published in the States, aimed at an adult audience. It was an entirely enchanting read for this grown-up, and a good read for anyone age 10 or older, depending on the child. It could be a good read-aloud with a younger child.
The other book I must press into your hands this Spring is Dreadful Young Ladies And Other Stories, by New York Times bestselling author and Newberry Award winner Kelly Barnhill. I laughed, I cried, I marked the book up extensively with exclamation points and underlines and smiley faces. Imagine Ronald Dahl at his desk writing Charlie and The Chocolate Factory when Margaret Atwood drops by. J.K. Rowling knocks at the door, followed by Kazuo Ishiguro. They open a couple bottles of red and write some stories together. With apologies to author Kelly Barnhill, clearly a creative genius in her own right, this is the mental space of her stories. You’ll meet a Sasquatch in love, a Patron Saint of Healers, and an Unlicensed Magician. Butterflies, sparrows and Very Remarkable Hens play important roles. Reading Dreadful Young Ladies is like eating a gold-wrapped Wonka chocolate bar: you wish it would never end. This collection would be fantastic to share with your teenager. Spring Break family read, anyone?
The rest of the books in today’s post are squarely in adult territory. Here goes!
First up is Naomi Halderman’s The Power, selected by the New York Times as one of its Top Ten Books of 2017. As the novel begins, strange things are happening, and not just in the U.S. Newsrooms – not to mention government officials and parents – are trying to figure it out. In schoolyards, there’s “[a] strange new kind of fighting which leaves boys – mostly boys, sometimes girls – breathless and twitching, with scars like unfurling leaves winding up their arms or legs or across the soft flesh of their middles. Their first thought after disease is a new weapon, something these kids are bringing into school, but as the first week trickles into the second they know that’s not it.” Teenage girls have found that they’ve got an electrical surge emanating from their hands, and they’re learning how to control it. They also have the ability to awaken the power in older women who are – we all know – more dangerous. Life as we know it changes. Injustices are addressed – wrongs are righted – while you cheer and exult. But what happens next? Imagine the soundtrack of “This Girl is on Fire” with a deep bass pounding underneath – the fear that something is going very, very wrong. The Power is a passionate, thoughtful novel for our #MeToo moment in time. Literary fiction, and hot.
The Immortalists, a debut novel by Chloe Benjamin, shimmers with a different kind of heat – the propulsion of a literary thriller with the heart of a family saga. The Gold siblings – two brothers and two sisters – are regular kids, growing up on the Lower East Side in 1969. Their dad works long hours as a tailor and shop-owner and their mom stays busy managing the household. One summer day – bored, hot – the Gold kids decide to visit a fortune teller. It’s supposed to be fun and spooky, but it’s something more: a terrifying prediction of the day of their deaths. The rest of the book follows their life paths as the siblings head straight into the mouth of the prophecy – or find a way around it. “For someone who loves stories about brothers and sisters, as I do, The Immortalists is about as good as it gets,” writes Karen Joy Fowler, author of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. “Chloe Benjamin has written an inspiring book that makes you think hard about what you want to do with the time you’re given. This is not really a book about dying – it’s a book about how to live,” writes Nathan Hill, author of The Nix. One warning: the first paragraph of this novel, involving pubic hair, is quite possibly the worst opening paragraph I’ve ever read. Almost a deal killer. I only kept reading because of the good reviews.
It took me even longer to get hooked on Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders, which won the Man Booker Award last year and is now out in paperback. I had to start it three times. Persistence in this case paid off: Lincoln in the Bardo is one of the loveliest, richest, most unusual, most affecting novels I’ve ever read. As you probably know, it imagines Lincoln in the days after his beloved son Willie’s death. Lincoln spends time in the cemetery with Willie’s body and a variety of ghosts, none of whom he can see or hear. The ghosts engage in a lively conversation about Lincoln and the place where the ghosts find themselves trapped, between death and what lies beyond (“the Bardo”). The way the book is written seems almost script-like, with the ghosts’ dialogue providing most of the momentum. You can imagine it on the screen, yet the pleasures of the language and the experimental style are also distinctly literary. Lincoln in the Bardo aims for the stratosphere – for originality and transcendence – and reaches it. It is a strange and wondrous tale, strangely and wondrously told.
Irish author Maggie O’Farrell also takes chances in her memoir: I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes With Death. This is not your garden variety memoir describing a struggle, with a side dish of and feelings felt and lessons learned. It’s not even the story of her life, exactly. Instead, O’Farrell tells you in short chapters about each time she might have died. There was the time she was walking alone on a trail and a creepy man stalked her and very nearly trapped her. (She got away, but the man subsequently murdered another young woman on the trail.) There was the time she dashed in front of a car as a child. The difficult childbirth. The armed robbery by a man wielding a machete when she and her husband were hiking in South America. As with all books, and with memoir in particular, this approach works because of the voice. O’Farrell writes with steadiness and curiosity about the things that have happened to her – with both distance and immediacy. With a sense of awe. “I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am,” wrote Sylvia Plath in The Bell Jar, quoted by O’Farrell in the epigraph. You finish this book feeling grateful for O’Farrell’s many second chances – and thinking about your own.
Bonus picks: ON THE RADAR
Here are a few more ideas for Spring Reads, books I’ve read about or only just started reading…
If you prefer nonfiction… check out Stephen Pinker’s new book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. Bill Gates is a superfan: “The world is getting better, even if it doesn’t always feel that way. I’m glad we have brilliant thinkers like Steven Pinker to help us see the big picture. Enlightenment Now is not only the best book Pinker’s ever written. It’s my new favorite book of all time.” Click here for more from Bill Gates.
If you love historical fiction… try Manhattan Beach, Jennifer Egan’s World War II era novel. Here’s what my extra-smart reader friend Sara Bhatia has to say: “Manhattan Beach is a breezy, can’t put down noir tale set in part in the seedy New York City underworld, with a plucky young heroine seeking answers to her father’s mysterious disappearance. The novel is Pulitzer-prize winning author Jennifer Egan’s first foray into historical fiction, and while I’m a sucker for a good historical setting, Egan seems to have fallen in love with her era, and has allowed her quirky locales – including decadent night clubs and the Brooklyn Navy Yard – to dictate her plot. Scuba diving — and Egan’s meticulous description of the 200-pound suits, and the murky work of the divers in New York’s harbors — is central to the story. It’s engrossing, but if you are going to read one book by Jennifer Egan, start with her brilliant, funny and experimental Pulitzer-prize winning A Visit from the Goon Squad — the chapter written entirely in Power Point is astonishing in its creativity.”
If you loved The Nightingale… you’ll be excited to know that Kristin Hannah is out with a new novel, The Great Alone. A family of three heads to Alaska in 1974 for a fresh start. The father, a Vietnam vet, has been unstable since his return from war. Unfortunately, we tend to take our troubles with us. The characters are fairly predictable in this one, and it’s not hard to figure out who’s good and who’s bad. That being said, it’s pretty great to read about the Alaskan wilderness and sometimes you don’t want or need the most complicated read. “Alaska herself can be Sleeping Beauty one minute and a bitch with a sawed-off shotgun the next,” says Large Marge, owner of the General Store. “There’s a saying: Up here you can make one mistake. The second one will kill you.” This novel might be just what you’re looking for, and I wouldn’t blame you. I’m enjoying it.
If you loved Orphan Train… don’t miss Christina Baker Kline’s A Piece of the World, now out in paperback, in which Kline imagines the life of the woman famously memorialized in Andrew Wyeth’s best known painting, “Christina’s World.” Here’s the publisher’s description: “To Christina Olson, the entire world was her family’s remote farm in the small coastal town of Cushing, Maine. Born in the home her family had lived in for generations, and increasingly incapacitated by illness, Christina seemed destined for a small life. Instead, for more than twenty years, she was host and inspiration for the artist Andrew Wyeth, and became the subject of one of the best known American paintings of the twentieth century.” Author Michael Chabon calls it “a feat of time travel, a bravura improvisation on the theme of art history, a wonderful story that seems to have been waiting, all this time, for Christina Baker Kline to come along and tell it.”
If you want to see what all the fuss is about… try Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng (multiple weeks on The New York Times Bestseller list). Little Fires Everywhere begins with a house burning down and evidence of arson. Everyone thinks the troubled youngest daughter must be to blame. But is she? In the picture-perfect world of Shaker Heights, nothing is at it seems. Especially since an itinerant artist came to town with her daughter, Pearl. And since a custody battle over an adopted Chinese girl began raging in Shaker Heights. This might be a good book club choice, as there will almost certainly be some people around the table who love it and others who will try to figure out why they didn’t. (I have to admit – I’m among the latter).
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Today’s post initially ran at StyleBlueprint.com.
Top image copyright here.