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Neshama's Choices for June

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Early June’s picks : a novel based in Korea, short stories featuring animals and the environment, and new book by an old favorite.

Forgotten Country  by Catherine Chung
Janie and Hannah, who started out as Jeehyun and Haejin in their native Korea, are sisters. Hannah's disappeared and their father is sick. Janie tracks her down in California and the family ends up back in Korea for his final days. We learn why they fled 20 years ago, and trace the strained relationship between the father and his sister, tensions with the cousins who stayed behind, and the deep dislocation of changing countries and cultures midstream. The father is a quiet mathematician, stoic in the face of his cancer, but so winning as he punctuates good news with an outstretched hand and the word "shake." Janie's pursuing a Ph.D. in math but her dissertation has been foundering. Is she just trying to fulfill her father's wishes? There's an accurate delicacy in the way Chung takes us through the family's trials that reminded me of elegant math equations. She also intersperses folktales from the girls' youth that are amazingly relevant. Fine writing and very touching.

Carry the One by Carol Anshaw
I've been eagerly awaiting this new offering from the author of "Seven Moves" for what seemed like forever and was relieved--and utterly captivated--when this book finally appeared. It takes just a moment after Carmen's funky, hilarious, ill-starred wedding reception but that moment weighs, reverberates, and shapes the lives of everyone in the car that hit the girl on the country road, and those connected to them. Alcohol, drugs, cowardice and compensation play their parts in both the immediate tragedy and attempts to balance the torqued equation in which all involved have to "carry the one," consciously or unconsciously. Carmen stays married for a while and has kids. Carmen's brother Nick (in a wedding dress of his own) and girlfriend Olivia (in tux) go down very rocky roads: she ends up in jail; he, a brilliant but dysfunctional astronomer, goes down the tubes of addiction. Carmen's sister and maid of honor Alice, an artist, takes up with Nick's sister, Maude. In the ensuing quarter of a century we discover how each of  these wonderfully well-drawn characters comes to terms (or not) with their primal wounds. So readable (a commodity getting rarer and rarer these days, unfortunately), so touching, so unpretentious, so wise!

Birds of a Lesser Paradise by Megan Mayhew Bergman
Short stories with two main themes: the human-animal connection and eco-doomsayers vs the biological imperative. Two pieces feature desperate quests: one a hunt for a (probably) extinct woodpecker, another for the parrot who can recreate a dead mother's voice, The doomsayers are maddening in their self-righteous purity (though one sneaks bacon) and I was always rooting for their beleaguered partners to disengage despite practical challenges and, of course, heartbreak. Very well written, full of gritty detail (Bergman's married to a vet). Best not to read them in one sitting, as I (a gluttonous reader) did because with such similar material, they tend to blur.

Back in a couple of weeks…

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Posted by: Neshama

Neshama works at the Fairfax Library.

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