Friday, April 21, 2017

Dear Great Book Guru,   I was at a Sea Cliff Baseball game the other day supporting my favorite team “The Artful Dodgers” when one of the parents mentioned a book he had particularly enjoyed.  It was by the same author who had written for the very popular TV series “Big Lies, Little Secrets.” Any thoughts? Fan of Sea Cliff Baseball

Dear Fan of Sea Cliff Baseball,  My book group just finished the novel you are interested in: TRULY, MADLY, GUILTY  by Liane Moriarty.  Set in Sidney, Australia, the book follows the lives of three couples before, during, and after a fateful barbecue. In short, time alternating chapters, we meet their parents, neighbors, and children and the suspense builds quickly as  we wait to find out  what did happen that night. The pivotal relationship is that of Clementine and Erika. An attractive, witty cellist and mother of two young children, Clementine finds herself resenting her lifetime friend Erika, an anxious accountant who has been emotionally damaged by her flamboyant hoarder mother.  When Erika’s wealthy neighbor Vid- think Tony Soprano- invites everyone to a lavish evening barbecue, truths are revealed, tragedies of varying proportions unfold, and no one leaves the garden unscathed.  The strength of this fast moving novel is Moriarty’s ability to make us care deeply for her characters while offering a satisfying, seamless conclusion.  Recommended! 

Thursday, April 13, 2017

 Dear Great Book Guru,  We will be having our annual Family Duck Hunt (rubber duckys, of course) next week and I always like to have a new book to discuss with my erudite cousins and siblings. Do you have something short, relevant, and worthwhile to recommend?  Hunter of Ducks and Good Books

Dear Hunter of….. I just finished a strange but very moving novel by Mohsin Hamid EXIT WEST that you might want to discuss with your family.  Set in the 21st century, this short (220 pages) work introduces us to a young couple Nadia and Saeed, university students living in an undisclosed country (closely resembling Syria) that is on the brink of civil war. Their love for each other is described in poetic detail as the world they know begins to disappear in violence and chaos. Finally, they decide they must leave and here the novel takes a fantastical turn- think C.S. Lewis’s   "Chronicles of Narnia" where doors become portals into new worlds or Colson Whitehead’s “ Underground Railroad” where there are truly trains to freedom.  The young couple steps through appointed doors that lead them first to the Greek island of Mykonos, then to Vienna, on to London, and finally to California. In each of these places they experience great misery as  outcasts and  persecuted migrants.  Interspersed are brief portraits of other refugees in Sydney, Tijuana, Dublin,  Marrakesh… set in a future where everyone is displaced, everyone is in search of a homeland.   A hauntingly beautiful, provocative novel- recommended!

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Dear Great Book Guru,  Friends of mine attended the annual Long Island Reads this week and they really enjoyed the discussion. As usual, John Canning received high praise as its master of ceremonies.   I think I might want to use the selection for my book  group.  Any thoughts?     Long Island Reader

Dear Long Island Reader,  DEAD WAKE by Erik Larson was this year’s LI Reads choice and it did make for a spirited discussion.   Larson, a Freeport native, writes of the sinking of the Lusitania - ten months after World War I had begun.   The luxury ocean liner with over 2000 people aboard sank in the Irish Sea eighteen minutes after being torpedoed by a German submarine.  Larson tells the background tales of many of the ill-fated passengers, the lucky survivors, the German Captain Schwieger (deemed the villain but many  admitted to finding themselves  rooting for him at times), and the beleaguered British Captain Turner (the hero who found himself accused of negligence by the Admiralty). He offers interesting insights into the politics of Winston Churchill (possibly the true villain) and the romantic meanderings of Woodrow Wilson.  While we know that the ship is doomed, we do not know which of the passengers are.  Will the little boy with measles and his pregnant mother live? Or will the book dealer with the original annotated Dickens’s “Christmas Carol” in his briefcase make it back to America?  Will the young spiritualist/architect and her even younger friend find their way to Paris?  Larson is a masterful storyteller and his story of the Lusitania will remain for you for a very long time.  Highly recommended!

Friday, March 31, 2017

Dear Great Book Guru,  April showers have come a few days early to Sea Cliff and as I sit looking out at another rainy day, my thoughts turn to finding a good book.  I am a fan of short stories long on beauty and insight.  Do you have any suggestions?  Awaiting April

Dear Awaiting April, Unlike you,  I am not a huge fan of short stories, but I just finished a remarkable collection of eight beautifully written, compelling tales: THE REFUGEES by Viet Thanh Nguyen- author of last year’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel THE SYMPATHIZER.  Nguyen left Vietnam as a young man – a refugee who found a home in California.  His newest book recounts the lives of those who came here and those who remained behind, and how these lives intersect.   In the opening story, a young woman is haunted by the spirit of her brother who died helping her escape, but she finds herself questioning who is truly the ghost: she or her brother. Others of the refugees include an elderly professor who begins to confuse his wife with a young girl he knew long ago in Vietnam. Soon we see that each of Nguyen’s characters is forced to deal with the present and the past. It is not their memories that pain them, but their need to forget so much of what formed them.  While each refugee’s story is unique, all share the pain of a lost homeland. Highly recommended!

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Dear Great Book Guru,  Spring has just arrived and I am filled with energy and optimism.  Sea Cliff is as lovely  all seasons of the year, but I would love to read a book about other cultures.  Any thoughts?  A Spring Sprite

Dear Spring Sprite,   I was away this weekend at the annual Barbara Pym Conference in Cambridge, MA where I picked up a short, incredibly moving novel: GHACHAR GHOCHAR by Vivek Shanbbag. The title comes from a phrase invented by children to describe a tangled web and this is indeed a tangled web of a story.   We meet the nameless narrator in a large coffee house in Bangalore, India.  He is anxiously seeking advice from the shop owner, who he sees as a man great wisdom. Very soon we have reason to question our narrator’s reliability.  He and his family have been living an impoverished,  stressful existence where every rupee had to be accounted for.  Horrific news comes: his father the main provider for the family has lost his job.  When a young uncle offers to start up a spice business using the father’s severance pay, everyone fears financial ruin. But instantly the business prospers and the family becomes extraordinarily wealthy.   The contrast in their former and present life styles makes for a fascinating study of Indian society.    The novel takes a very dark turn as corruption, indolence, and violence become embedded in their daily lives.  When the story ends, we feel terrified for what is to come.  Highly recommended! 

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Dear Great Book Guru,  I plan to be celebrating St. Patrick’s Day in Brooklyn this week with friends and family.  I know I annoy them with my many, many questions about this popular borough so I would like to read something that will provide me with some answers. Any suggestions? Baffled by Brooklyn

Dear Baffled by Brooklyn, I remember reading a short story by Thomas Wolfe “Only the Dead Know Brooklyn” and wondering if it were true since for me Brooklyn has always seemed cloaked in myth and mystery. Well, I just finished a book that brought great enlightenment to me: THE NEW BROOKLYN by Kay Hymowitz.  The author takes us on a journey of hundreds of years from the 1600’s Dutch farmlands, through the Civil War, the Southern migration,  two World Wars, the postwar suburban exodus, and finally bringing us to today’s Brooklyn, one of the world’s most desirable urban locations.  The roles ship building, sugar distilleries, subway lines, bridges, and -yes- breweries played in Brooklyn’s  history is highlighted throughout in colorful detail. Focusing on seven neighborhoods: Park Slope, Williamsburg, the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Sunset Park, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brownsville, and Canarsie,  she details how each exemplifies “what it takes to bring a city back.”  In later chapters, she wrestles with the question “can this new wealth lift up the long disadvantaged?”  Highly recommended!

Friday, March 10, 2017

Dear Great Book Guru,  Next week my friends and I are attending the annual Barbara Pym literary conference at Harvard .  It is always a great weekend and to prepare, I would like to read or reread one of Pym’s novels.  Please suggest a favorite of yours.    A Very Enthusiastic Pymite

Dear Enthusiastic Pymite,  I have just finished rereading LESS THAN ANGELS by Pym and it was a delight from start to finish.  The story opens in 1950’s London at a reception for anthropologists, some returning from Africa, some students beginning their careers, plus a bevy of eccentric administrators and wealthy benefactors.  Catherine Oliphant, a writer of romance novels is somewhat involved with Tom Mallow, a “callow” younger researcher recently back from the field. She is the true anthropologist here and a stand-in for Pym herself.   Catherine observes those around her, recording their patterns and eccentricities in exquisite detail.  When the story shifts to the London suburbs, we meet sisters Rhonda and Mabel whose days are filled with observing   neighbors, friends, and relatives and we realize we are experiencing yet another anthropological study.  When the story moves to the countryside, we soon recognize the rituals with which the landed gentry organize their lives.  Throughout, we see Pym at her best: describing the smallness of life in all its grandeur.  However and wherever, people will find meaning in the distractions which make up their lives and ….ours.  Highly recommended!