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!  

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Dear Great Book Guru,  Last weekend, I attended a startlingly beautiful opera I was unfamiliar with: Dvorak’s “Rusalka”. Based on a Czech fairy tale of water sprites and human royalty,  this work has the most romantic music I have ever heard.  While waiting for the second act to begin, I overheard a group of people discussing a new book reviewed on NPR about psychosomatic illnesses. It sounds fascinating.Have you read it? 
Opera Lover in Search of a Good Book

Dear Opera Lover in Search…. Suzanne O’Sullivan, an Irish neurologist, has written IS IT ALL IN YOUR HEAD? - a look into seven patients’ histories of debilitating illnesses. In each case, the cause of the illness was a mind- body connection gone awry.  Rachel, a young dancer, suffers from chronic fatigue and finds her career in shambles but is it her body helping her mind deal with life’s stresses?  Does Matthew who can no longer walk suffer from MS or are his legs paralyzed by his fear of failing? The cases O’Sullivan presents show the intricate connections that exist between our bodies and brains. Tracing the evidence of psychosomatic disorders back through time, she sees a contradiction in the 21st century belief that “we can think ourselves better” and the generally accepted fact that our emotions can cause our physical ills. She ends with a less than satisfying but honest appraisal: “There is no single answer because there is no single cause.” Recommended