Books In The Time Of Corona
“That’s the thing about books. They let you travel without moving your feet.” Jhumpa Lahiri in The Namesake
I think you are either a person who reads or a person who doesn’t. If you read, you are going to want to do it more. If you don’t, I’m not going to be able to convince you to put down the remote. I decided to use some of this time we have been given to read great books that I had missed. Here are ten of them.
Nostromo Joseph Conrad
At the beginning of the quarantine, I took on the daunting task of reading Nostromo. I was greatly intimidated by the very long prologue to one of Joseph Conrad’s greatest and most complex novels. Once I started, it became a compelling adventure story with profound psychological insights and political implications. Nostromo tells the tumultuous history of the fictional South American country of Costaguana. Written at the time of the development of the Panama Canal, Nostromo is set in the imaginary province of Sulaco, which secedes from the federation of Costaguana in order to protect its natural resource, the silver mine. The parallels with the ‘revolution’ in Panama by the United States in 1903 are striking; just as Panama seceded from Columbia to satisfy the material interests of the canal builders, so the secession of Sulaco serves the material interests of ‘the Gould company. Conrad creates the “perfectly incorruptible”” Nostromo who we don’t get to know until the second half of the novel. He is an Italian immigrant and a heroic symbol within the community. Nostromo, is the only man who can save the silver in the San Tomé mine and secure the independence of the province of Sulaco. The question is whether his morals and integrity are as unassailable as his reputation. Will he stand firmly in his ideals once the fate lies in his hands?
Angle of Repose Walter Stegner
Angle of Repose is a classic of American Literature. Lyman Ward is a recently divorced, wheelchair-bound retired history professor (aged 58) struggling to find his way through the turns life has taken. Determined to write a biography of his beloved and famous artist/author grandmother, he moves into his grandparent’s long-empty home in Grass Valley, California in 1970. Most of the book is about Susan Ward an accomplished writer and illustrator, who found herself an accidental pioneer of the western United States during the 1870s and 1880s.The character development in Angle of Repose is exceptional. Wallace Stegner shows great incite about two groups of people that can be hard to understand – the physically disabled and strong, complex women, of the Victorian era. His words do justice to the great beauty of the American West. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1972 and no wonder because the prose is beautiful.
The Movie Goer Walker Percy
The Movie Goer written in 1961 is about John/Jack/ Binx Bolling, a Louisianan who drifts along. He is in a line of work that he finds interesting, but he has no real purpose in life. Like Tom Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie, he finds meaning in movies. Little things he sees remind him of different films or actors—and the films are always more interesting than his routine life. He is single and about to turn thirty. Most of the story is about John drifting through Mardi Gras and his life in New Orleans. It is a nice little tour of New Orleans neighborhoods and some of the nearby coastal bayous and by the end of the book John has matured. It is a coming of age story. You can’t help but draw comparisons to Holden Caulfield with his eye for identifying self deceit and insincerity (though in a much more Southern genteel way).The book remains current because of the alienation and despair that persist in both good and bad times and the power of language and humor to give them meaning.
Americanah Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
On a simple level, Americanah is a love story set in Africa, Europe and America. As you turn the pages, you quickly realize that Adichie uses the novel format as a social commentary about race. Protagonist Ifemelu ironically discovers that she is black as she leaves a politically tormented Nigeria for the United States. There are shrewd observations about repatriation, sizing up and distancing between African blacks and African Americans, the value of dark skin in Caucasian societies, the arrogance of white savior mentality and the fascinating world of African hair. The novel is filled with insightful blog posts by Ifemelu as she experiences America.
The Overstory Richard Powers
The Overstory is a huge novel about trees, cleverly structured around roots, trunk, branches and seeds. Richard Power’s ability to make us see something we take for granted is really special. Blending fiction, historical writing, scientific description and literary prose, he writes a story of climate catastrophe and hope. The plot of The Overstory focuses on people’s various intergenerational connections with trees. It is a human story in the context of environmental loss from climate change. The lonely broken people of Power’s story seek other people to save the trees and ultimately our world. This is a reminder that it is everyone’s problem. It was the winner of the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
A Gentleman In Moscow Amor Towles
At the age of 33, Count Alexander Rostov is sentenced to house arrest for life in the elegant Hotel Metropol in Moscow’s Theatre Square. Instead of his familiar suite, his new abode is now a tiny room in the attic.The book covers Russia’s turbulent years from the 1920s to the 1950s. Rostov witnesses the momentous changes in Russia, not Tolstoy-style through the debate of powerful men and the clash on the battlefields, but in the detail of everyday life in the hotel as he quietly observes the changing guests and procedures. We are left to imagine the mentality of the new regime’s leaders and life outside the hotel. I love the character of Alexander Rostov with his old school manners, adaptability, kindness and quiet dignity.The writing is elegant, effortless, beautiful and funny. I really enjoyed this book.
A Long Petal In The Sea Isabel Allende
I am a huge fan of the author and so I was glad to pick up her latest book. The story starts in the midst of the Spanish Civil War. The first part of the book is captivating, and emotional as the reader is introduced to the various characters. After joining half a million refugees walking from Spain to France, the leading characters Victor and Rosa are accepted on the rescue ship M/S Winnipeg chartered by the famous Chilean Nobel-prize winning poet and politician Pablo Neruda bound for Chile. (fact) They have the same problems fleeing refuges have today and they are among the few lucky ones that make it to Chile. They begin a new life and later they are swept up in the Pinochet reign of terror. Victor and Rosa escape to Venezuela who welcomes all refugees fleeing from Chile. They return to Chile and again start a new life as Pinochet dies and Chile slowly returns to democracy. As the book headed towards a heartfelt and compelling conclusion, I found myself reading slower, not wanting to leave the book, its story and characters.This is a stunning historical literary novel and one I cannot recommend highly enough.
The Orphan Master’s Son Adam Johnson
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2013, ‘The Orphan Master’s Son’ tells the story of Pak Jun Do’s journey from life in a North Korean state orphanage to professional kidnapper to a career in Pyongyang at the heart of Kim Jong ll’s regime. It is an intriguing and sprawling story which explores several aspects of life in one of the most secretive countries in the world. Since there is no way of knowing how authentic it is, the line between fiction and nonfiction is blurred. I found it a carefully crafted, elegantly written, fascinating book to read.
The Assistant Bernard Malamud
The Assistant was written in 1957 and won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. It is about a Jewish grocery store owner in Brooklyn in the 1950’s and the Italian assistant who works for him. The story is a tragedy about the Jewish immigrant experience in America at that time. It is also about Frank Alpine, a man trying hard to change himself. It’s a fight that each of us might be familiar with. We know what to do to be good yet we often lose ourselves to temptation, to take a shortcut to to have it easy. Malamud can write. The simplicity of the prose and dialogue and the depth and complexity of the plot make the Assistant a special book.
To Kill A Mockingbird Harper Lee.
Atticus Finch is my number two literary crush and so I reread To Kill A Mockingbird every once in a while.(Howard Roark is my number 1). The book offers so much more than the picture of a small Southern town in the depression era filed with prejudice, injustice and the bond of love between family members and neighbors. So many issues that Scout points out, in the book, are still very real problems today. Lee’s characters define themselves every time they open their mouths and so they stay in your mind long after you finish the book. Atticus is the epitome of the literary hero, quietly dignified, moral, and unpretentious, standing alone, if need be, to do what is right. When you reread the book, you see that Scout, Jem, Boo, Tom, Calpurnia, the judge, the doctor and the neighbors who take care of each other, bring something to the human, heroic response to the world. Because we as a culture have gotten so good at rationalizing our bad behavior, we often forget “to do what’s right”. That’s why so many years after this book takes place, our world is still broken, so I thought it was time to read it again.