This installment: novels—a CD version of an old favorite; Brooklyn noir; Chechnya doings; Zimbabwe doings; instant penniless widowhood; and non-fiction on Italian journeys
Landing by Emma Donohue (CD)
This wonderful book came out in 2007. I recently listened to it and was entranced again. Here’s what I wrote about it then: Lovely set up, lovely execution. Jude, young oddball from the tiny Canadian town of Ireland, flies reluctantly to England. Something’s wrong with her mother, who’s visiting there. She and an exotic Irish stewardess named Sile (pronounced Sheila) connect intensely. Sile’s in relationship but it’s been flat, if cozy, for 3+ years. Mother has a brain tumor and dies. Jude is both plunged into grief and into love. (Sile’s part Indian and is based in Dublin.) At first it’s just letters and emails and a few expensive calls. At last Jude professes her love, Sile breaks up with her partner and then the “time-zone tango” begins with its ongoing intensity and confusion. Jude runs the town museum, lives in the house she shared with her mother, and can’t imagine herself elsewhere. Sile loves flying and the peripatetic life, as well as her odd friends and family at home. Then there’s Rizla, Jude’s ex—part Mohawk and a guy. They’re still attached and not exactly divorced. Lots of pleasure, lots of pain and ultimate resolution. Loved it. (As for the CD version, the actor did very well with accents, which I really appreciated.)
Visitation Street by Ivy Pochoda
Red Hook, Brooklyn, is tough and sad. Two teenaged girls from the more respectable Catholic side take a raft out into the polluted river. Only one returns, haunted and on the edge of crazy. A black boy from the projects, Cree, is involved. (His father was shot long ago.) The police treat it as a crime. A mysterious graffiti artist leaves his mark everywhere and does puzzling good deeds. Ghosts are ubiquitous, some quite noisy. Forgiveness is essential but very hard won. Heavy, atmospheric, noir and very well written.
The Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra
A novel based in Chechnya, with chapters ranging from the mid ‘90s to 2004. What a nightmare! Young Havaa, home burned, father seized, finds refuge in the town’s only hospital. The doctor, Sonja, has enough on her hands what with almost no supplies, little staff, and all those amputations from encounters with landmines. The title refers to a line in a multi-paged tome about the history of the region, never completed. Sonja’s sister, Natasha, has her own terrible history. Grim material, for sure, almost surrealistic. But lively characterizations, bitter humor, and the chance to experience this era from the inside out.
We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo
The author (with a fabulous name of her own) comes from Zimbabwe. The country she’s describing, through the eyes of young Darling, is definitely on the edge: shanties, hunger and fear predominate. Yet kids are so resilient they can turn fruit stealing into a game. Some manage to escape, and Darling eventuallyends up in “Destroyedmichygen” to live with her aunt. But despite the plenty and apparent safety, she finds herself missing the culture and context of home. A very original voice, fresh, funny and poignant.
The Widow Waltz by Sally Koslow
Ben and Georgia had a nifty, prosperous life: money, love, and two almost grown daughters. He dies suddenly and Georgia finds herself almost penniless. Where did the money go? Was their love a travesty? Nicola, her daughter adopted from Korea, can’t go back to Paris where she was attending culinary school and screwing around with an older chef. Louey, who’s been floundering anyway, now finds herself pregnant. But guess what: their new circumstances lead them to solid, surprising destinies. (ahh!) A feel-good book, well written and charming.
Italian Ways: on and off the rails from Milan to Palermo by Tim Parks
I’ve enjoyed his novels and his books about three decades of living in Italy. Here he manages to describe the culture through the lens of transportation. A very palatable dose of history (not my thing ordinarily) sandwiched between wonderful descriptions of his trips around the country. What a mix of frustration, pleasure, amusement, and absurdity as he comments on bureaucracy, architecture, and lots of personal interactions. Get on the train with Tim for a vivid journey.
Back next Monday.