This installment: breaking free of Orthodoxy (nf); survival in Africa (f); inside dope about being Chinese in America (f); the mean streets of Brooklyn (f); and mysterious Iceland (f).
Editor’s Note: Much of our print collection is now available for holds again. The titles and links below will direct you to print when available, with special notes made of digital eBook and eAudiobook availability.
Unorthodox by Deborah Feldman
Subtitled The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots, and it doesn’t take much to create scandal in this highly circumscribed religious community. Feldman’s parents for one: her mother left when she was a baby (postpartum depression/gay); her putative father crazy and subnormal. Grandparents and an aunt brought her up but she never fit. Always questioning, an appetite for books—god forbid! A handsome husband but trouble consummating the marriage, a move to a less restrictive suburb, a baby—nothing helped. Except a class at Sarah Lawrence and that was her ticket out. Whew! Emotion filled, sprinkles of Yiddish—what’s not to like (if you’re like me)?
Little Family by Ishmael Beah
In desperate times alliances form, and these five, living surreptitiously in the carcass of a downed plane, have worked out strategies to survive: whistled signals, meet-up places, and petty thievery. Sometimes even jobs come their way. Elimane, the oldest at 22, is educated. Khouda is beautiful, and Namsa, 10, is learning fast. All are incredibly clever and observant. Elimane ends up working for a dubious white man, Khouda gets a taste of the good life, but of course bad things happen as government corruption and shows of force constantly destabilize everyday life. A vivd picture of spirit and ingenuity, very atmospheric.
Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu
The setup: a screen play in which we meet very familiar characters like Generic Asian Man or Kung Fu Hero who are playing their roles in a movie. There’s a flimsy plot: a murder mystery with a Black and white team of detectives, and much of the action takes place in an SRO hotel and downstairs in the Golden Palace Restaurant. Initially I was taken with its clever tone but then the people behind the characters came into intense focus and by the end I’d gotten a penetrating, passionate exposure to the racism that constricts their lives and squashes their prospects. Brilliant and edifying.
City of Margins by William Boyle
You want mean streets? There they are, in this Brooklyn neighborhood circa 1990 where Italian families intersect constantly. The cops and the mob are in each other’s pockets, and brutality is the norm. A number of very peculiar alliances spring up and some disappearances at the end seem a little too neat: one odd couple goes under the radar with ill-gotten loot, another batch meet bad ends but the cops just chalk it up to gang rivalry. Good character development flesh out a familiar tale, like one lost son who dreams of writing a screen play but when he starts collecting information on his main subject, he puts his own life in peril. Redemption is in short supply here but dark entertainment abounds.
Miss Iceland by
Iceland has always been mysterious to me but this novel plunged me into a story that helped me feel closer to the culture. Hekla, named for a volcano by her reclusive farmer father, makes her way to the big city, intending to write. First she stays with friend Isay who also wanted to write but got sidetracked with domesticity. Then on to Jon John, another friend; he’s gay and the only work he can find is on fishing boats where he’s tormented. She meets a poet and moves in with him but has to do her writing surreptitiously; otherwise he feels threatened. At her job as a server in a fancy hotel, her boss and others keep pressuring her to sign up for the eponymous contest. Eventually she and Jon John flee to warmer climes where they can come into their true selves. Lore and myth come into play—they’re always under the surface in Iceland. As well as the brutality of whaling, the intensity of the landscape with its geothermal features, and the snottiness of the poets who congregate at the local cafe. Fascinating.
See you next week.