This installment: globe-wide travels, a Middle Eastern novel; concise and elegant short stories; a novel with a geriatric theme; another about displacement to the South; and a memoir of growing up in the Haight at its height.
The Turk Who Loved Apples by Matt Grtoss
Subtitled: and other tales of losing my way around the world. Here’s a chance to be an armchair traveler with a guide who’s been almost everywhere. He started as a clueless young man with a sojourn in Vietnam and went on to become the Frugal Traveler for the New York Times, which landed him in many delightful, challenging, uncomfortable, or in some cases tedious situations. He’s a fine storyteller with a colorful, chatty style and for the most part, I would much rather hear about his trials rather than go through them myself. The book has a rambling, circular quality that sometimes wore on me, so it worked better for me to read it in short spurts. An oddity: except for a mention in passing, I never did learn much about that Turk.
And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini
Many books set in the Middle East start with fantastical tales that resonate in “real life.” In this book, a little girl, Pari, disappears in the middle of the desert in the middle of the night. Her young brother Abdullah and his father go back to their village and it’s never spoken of again. We discover where she went, and how her life took shape from Kabul to Europe to America, but she was always haunted by a sense of something missing. The book spans 6 decades and we’re introduced to other stories that ultimately weave the strands together. Quite a journey!
The House at Belle Fontaine by Lily Tuck
Concise, elegant short stories that take place all over the world but have in common a sense of displacement. In the title tale, an insecure American divorcee has a very uncomfortable dinner with her aged landlord—the house is chilly, the food is bad, the dog is scary, and he falls asleep while they’re watching TV afterwards. Antarctica, Bangkok, Tuscany, Peru—and nary a happy camper in any of these exotic locations. Such good writing though, and for even more compensation: be glad it’s not you in the stories.
Being Esther by Miriam Karmel
Esther Lustig is 85, recently widowed, and life could be better in her Chicago apartment. But she and her friend and neighbor Lorraine (from high school, no less) check on each other daily, she still drives (perilously) and she’s fiercely resistant to the thought of those assisted living places where her kids want to stash her. She struggles to fill her empty days, tries to assess her little life, worries about her memory, broods about her marriage, and observes the human condition with wry perspective. A haimish book (that’s Yiddish for homey and more). I came to love Esther and was glad a deus ex machina saved her from the ignominy of an institution.
A Town of Empty Rooms by Karen E. Bender
How could Serena Shine use the company’s credit card to charge impulse purchases of fine jewelry? She’s a nice Jewish girl with a good job and a family. Her father’s just died—blame it on grief. But she’s dismissed in disgrace and they relocate to Waring, a North Carolina town where her husband Dan gets a job touting the local attractions (of which there are few, but he’s good at it). Waring is Christian as all get out, but there is a temple and Serena gets involved. The rabbi is charismatic but there is something obviously out of kilter in him. Their neighbor Forrest is a weird old man, a rabid Boy Scout leader; Dan and son try that avenue of connection. So much goes wrong, sometimes hilariously so, but with a dark, descending tone. A surprising epiphany at the end, and a great relief to me. I was really rooting for those essentially decent, sorely misplaced Shines. At the heart of the book: the realization that most of us are empty (lonely) and disconnected but sometimes grace steps in.
Fairyland, a memoir of my father by Alysia Abbott
Steve was a gay poet who lived in the heady Haight Ashbury milieu at its height—and depths. But he happened to have a little daughter (the author) whom he had to tend, and this is the story of their messy, touching life together. Cleanliness?—forget it. Oversight?—well sometimes. But Alysia kind of raised herself and has emerged quite strong and clear. Steve died of AIDS in the early ‘90s, and it took her 20 years before she was ready to create this elegiac tribute to their love. Full of familiar local color.
Back next Monday