Neshama’s Choices for April 15th

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Beautyland by Marie-Helene Bertino 

I loved Oliver Sacks’ book, An Anthropologist on Mars. Bertino flips the concept in this novel. Adina, “born” on Earth, is actually an emissary from a far-off planet. Her undercover task is to report back, which she does via an old fax machine. Adina offers very fresh takes on what we do here, and her notes are great fun to read. Others feel the same way, as they get published in her bestselling book, Alien Opus. We follow her trajectory growing up, through her teen years, and into young adulthood. Throughout she experiences familiar human tribulations filtered through her other-worldly lens. Towards the end, it appears that her planet has cut her loose. What now? The Little Prince makes an appearance in this novel as well—he really gets around. Thoughtful and charming. 

Annihilation by Jeff Vanderberg 

Our nameless, eloquent protagonist is on a 4-woman expedition to the mysterious Area X. Previous expeditions have ended very badly, including the death of her husband who returned from the previous one radically changed and mortally ill. But with the promise of information that might just save the planet, she signs on. It’s utterly bizarre in Area X but oddly captivating with the suggestion of a prospective healthy, harmonious ecosystem. The catch: that means, as the title suggests, getting rid of our human presence on the planet. Haunting science fiction, well-drawn. 

Lies and Sorcery by Elsa Morante 

This 778-page Italian novel from 1948 absolutely hijacked my reading life. I devoted 5 days to it while many other books languished on my shelves. In this new translation, all manner of deceptions, skullduggery, martyrdom, and chicanery play out like an epic opera that never stops. Elisa, a child, narrates. A miserable home life she observes and reports on with precision, as well as the characters and events that shaped it. Strong emotions abound. A tangled plot I couldn’t begin to summarize but one that held me in its thrall. Morante was a strong influence on Elana Ferrante, the pen name of the contemporary Sicilian writer. If you dare, prepare to be bowled over. 

Reykjavík by Ragnar Jonasson and Katrin Jakobsdottir. 

Johansson, a prolific crime novelist, joins the prime minister of Iceland (!) to tell of Sophie’s disappearance from a tiny island right off the coast of the country’s capital. The couple who hired her as a summer helper are its only inhabitants. There’s no body, no trace, and an indifferent police investigation so the case is closed. A journalist starts poking around three decades later and eventually uncovers the truth. Turns out that money and political influences can nip due process in the bud. Suspenseful and atmospheric, with a pronunciation guide to help with Icelandic names.