This installment: a novel about music; Theroux’s African coda; a college reunion; a Cold War novel; a nice kid duped and jailed; a novel in the heart of the Midwest. (That makes 3 teen books out of 6--see YA at the end of each writeup, but they’re very good no matter what your age.)
The Lucy Variations by Sara Zarr
Lucy, 17, is a piano prodigy who abruptly stopped playing when her grandmother died. Her 10 year old brother, Gus, is now competing and attractive Will, his new teacher, encourages Lucy to start again. The family is wealthy, the grandfather tyrannical, and Lucy is severely torn by conflicting impulses, including a crush on Will. A Young Adult book, full of emotion (as befits the age) but also rich with details of the rarified, intense world of music.(YA)
The Last Train to Zona Verde by Paul Theroux
I loved his Dark Star Safari in which he revisited Africa, comparing and contrasting his experiences early on there with the current decline. This is a sad, grumpy, yet still fascinated coda, his “ultimate African safari.” He hangs out joyously with Bushmen, then realizes the pure, primitive life he’s watching is essentially a show for tourists. He takes in the ironies of over-the-top luxury in the jungle where the wild has become a large zoo for the very rich. He goes through tense, hard travel into Namibia and Angola—bad food, bad connections, bad smells, social breakdown, stretches of tedium. Glad I’m not the traveler, but Theroux does it for us and it’s therefore worth reading to witness the challenges and paradoxes of the Dark Continent up close through veteran if jaundiced eyes.
The Red Book by Deborah Copaken Kogan
Four Harvard alumnae at their 20th reunion: always a juicy setup. Their lives are a mess, despite the chirpy summaries in the class report. Mixed race Clover, brought up on a commune, has lost her job with Lehman Bros. Mia in Hollywood wanted to act but has 4 kids instead. Addison’s husband is a would-be novelist and a limp, nonparticipating father. Jane, adopted from Vietnam, is still suffering from her journalist husband’s murder in the field. There’s a feverish quality when they come together again with soap opera elements but they’re smart cookies (Harvard, after all) who move in complex, lively worlds so it’s fun to read. And in the end they make the changes that bring them closer to authenticity—ahh!
You Are One of Them by Elliott Holt
In the heart of the Cold War, Sarah and her best friend Jennifer write letters to Andropov pleading for peace. Somehow Jennifer’s lands favorably and she becomes a poster child with travel to the USSR and lots of media attention, leaving Sarah in the dust. Then at 12 Jennifer and parents are gone—a private plane crash. Sarah’s mother creates a foundation in Jennifer’s name. Now Sarah’s in Russia herself, just out of college, trying to sort out truth and lies. Fascinating local color, intrigue, and a glimpse at the complicated relationship between Russian and Americans: competition, envy, spying-- which suggests the Cold War hasn’t completely thawed. (YA)
Kindness for Weakness by Shawn Goodman
James has a lousy home life. His brother Louie offers him a “job” delivering packages and soon he lands in jail. He’s basically a good kid thrust into a brutal world. Guards are sadistic, inmates simmering, tricky and periodically explosive. He tries to keep his head down but it’s all pretty hopeless. A few positive figures (Sampson, a sympathetic guard, and Mr. Pfeffer, his English teacher, who stays in touch through correspondence) but they can’t balance out the toxic load. Jack London’s Sea Wolf offers him some comfort and inspiration. Yes this is a sad book, written in the first person, but very powerful. (YA)
Jewelweed by David Rhodes
I started this skeptically, then was captivated. First the Pilgrim’s Progress type names put me off: Blake Bookchester (prodigal jailbird son), Danielle Workhouse (tough single mom and hard worker), Lester Mortal (hermit sheltering a Wild Child), etc. The place: the town of Words, Wisconsin, on the edge of the Driftless Region in the heart of the Midwest. I’ve never thought of that area as a trove of natural beauty (California chauvinism, I admit) but it‘s certainly a source of comfort and even ecstasy for many of the book’s characters. There’s also Winifred Helm (there we go again), pastor, gardener, and sponsor of Blake when he’s sprung. He works with her husband Jacob, a fix- it man, and references Spinoza to sort out the unfair universe. Danielle, aka Dart, works for the Roebucks who have an angry disabled teenager, Kevin. In their pond is a huge snapping turtle. Ivan and August, 8 year old pals, want to trap him. Aged Grandma Flo strings rosaries. A few of the characters love local food sources and eat well. I won’t even try to lay out the plot but it ends better than I’d feared, even for the turtle.
Back next Monday