A female English professor and writer loses her best friend and sometimes lover to suicide. A few days later she’s asked to take over the care of his dog, an enormous Great Dane. No small ask as the writer lives in a tiny flat in a Manhattan building where dogs are prohibited. This is the plot of the otherwise plotless but strangely mesmerising The Friend by Sigrid Nunez, a story about love, loss and being an artist, which, had my flight not been over, I would have read in one sitting.
In Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen we’re back in familiar Franzen-territory: the dissection of an all American family. After his more expansive (geographically and thematically) and, in my opinion, less successful Purity, Crossroads feels reassuringly familiar. This is both a blessing, he does it extremely well, but also begs the question: is Franzen a one-trick pony?
At seventeen, Marie is kicked out of Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine’s court in France and exiled to a godforsaken abbey in the English countryside. Deemed too ugly to marry, Marie, an orphaned ‘bastard’ with royal blood, is stowed away for life. There’s far more to Marie than meets the eye, however, and soon enough, she has turned the poverty-stricken abbey into a powerhouse. The question is: how does Eleanor feel about that? And, anyway, are women really meant to achieve this much? If a story about nuns in a 12th century abbey sounds dull to you, think again; Matrix by Lauren Groff is an absolutely riveting read.
It is 1666 and the plague reaches a remote Derbyshire village of some 360 souls. They decide to cut themselves off from the outside world in order to protect the surrounding villages. Based on a true story, Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks is a haunting and poignant novel told through the voice of an 18-year-old village girl. Although published twenty years ago it has, of course, extra resonance for our times.
Having just finished Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead, there’s no doubt in my mind that she’s a talented writer. Her metaphors are spot on, her ambitions high and she’s an accomplished storyteller – at times. This Booker Prize long-listed novel about Marian Graves, a female pilot in the early 20th century, takes off with a roar, but seems to stall before it picks up again at the very end. Whether or not you’re willing to go on that 600 page journey I’ll leave up to you. I certainly haven’t given up on Shipstead as an author although this book was a bit of a schlep.
The desperately sad situation in Afghanistan brought back memories of The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers. Powers is something as contradictory as a machine gunner and a poet, as well as an extremely talented author. A Michener Fellow of Poetry from the University of Texas at Austin, Powers served as a machine gunner in the Iraqi cities of Mosul and Tal Afar in 2004 and 2005. His novel The Yellow Birds, inspired by his own experiences of war, is a superb book, heart wrenching, moving and beautifully written. Read full Review
In Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, we find ourselves in the presence of Yossarian, a quizzical and virile man who is serving as a bombardier in the American army, with a tenacious animosity towards flying more missions. Under the command of Colonel Carthart, we are introduced to the amphora of the novel: Catch-22. The single way to be discharged from service in the army is through insanity, though to admit that you are insane shows signs of sanity. Hence, no one will ever be sent home. Overtly or discretely, you can be sure that Catch-22 is haunting you at every turn.
Mr Ethan Frome still cuts an imposing figure in Starkfield, despite being left ‘but the ruin of a man,’ by a terrible accident some years previously. As mute and melancholy as the wintry New England landscape he inhabits, Ethan stoically shoulders the burden of a cruel past. In Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton, we uncover the story of his joyless existence and his one shot at blazing, beautiful love. An intense and compelling addition to our Classics archive, this certainly isn’t a tale for lightweights.
After reading a few contemporary duds, I’ve taken refuge in the haven of mid-20th century American literature and read The Easter Parade by Richard Yates. I adore literature from this era for it’s well-edited, unpretentious yet profound writing and I haven’t been disappointed this time either. We’re in 1930’s New York. Sarah and Emily are sisters and the children of divorced parents Pookie and Walter Grimes. The opening sentence sets the stage: ‘Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life, and looking back it always seemed that the trouble began with their parents’ divorce.’ Expect no happy ending.
At the beginning, The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead feels like a typical American slave novel (think Beloved, The Polished Hoe, 12 Years a Slave and Roots) with horrifying details of physical and sexual abuse and a particularly evil plantation owner. Whitehead has a surprise in store for us, though, and that’s what makes this novel so original and intriguing.