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December 2017

Consider the Peacock

9781476510323Recently I read the book Peacocks to the second graders, and they had a lot to say about it. The local zoo has some of these beautiful birds, and many of the kids have seen them there. Second graders are less fanciful than first graders, but every year there is someone in the class who chimes in with a tall tale during discussion time. This week not one but two children told us about peacocks who had gotten into cars with them. Logistically such a scenario seems unlikely, considering six-foot tails and all, but who I am to quibble? I usually just say something like, "Wow!" and move on.

I asked the class what other animals they would like to read about, and various students mentioned puppies, kittens, dinosaurs, and sharks. There was a lot of enthusiasm for puppies. Then, beaming, one girl added, "Tarantulas!"


Norman's Best Books of 2017

9781455563913Since 2009, my husband, Norman Trepner, has written about his favorite books of the year.  Here is the 2017 edition. (With one exception, these are books for adults.) –Susan

I was aiming to complete this roundup of my favorite books for the year back in December, but I have a good reason for being late…I was reading!

The book that had me reading into the new year was Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee. This engrossing novel tells the story of one Korean family over four generations, beginning in Japanese-occupied Korea in the early 1900s up to Japan itself in the late 1980s. After finishing Pachinko, I looked at several reviews, and I found Tash Aw’s review in the Guardian to best describe this wonderful book. 

Pachinko wasn’t the only culprit for my list being late; I then went on to read two other books that I highly recommend, Ghachar Ghochar, written by Vivek Shanbhag and translated by Srinath Perur; and So Much Blue, by Percival Everett. Mr. Shanbhag has written eight works of fiction and two plays in the South Indian language Kannada, and Ghachar Ghochar (a nonsense phrase said by one of the characters and meaning knotted or tangled up) is the author’s first work to be translated into English. Set in Bangalore, this slim novel is about how a small, close-knit family changes after one of the members founds a successful spice company.

The protagonist in So Much Blue is Kevin Pace, a 56-year-old painter, and the book’s chapters alternate between Kevin’s present-day family life in New England, a harrowing trip taken to El Salvador in 1979 as civil war is breaking out, and a Parisian love affair some ten years ago. The three segments stand on their own and make for good reading, but it is the author’s sharp and often funny writing that made this one of my favorite books of late.

Sing-unburied-sing-9781501126062_hrMy other favorite novels over the past year were Sing, Unburied, Sing, by Jesmyn Ward; A Horse Walks into a Bar, written by David Grossman and translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen; Exit West, by Mohsin Hamid; and Autumn, by Ali Smith. Sing, Unburied, Sing won the 2017 National Book Award for Fiction, and the book definitely deserved the award. In relating the story of a poor Mississippi family, Ms. Ward manages to include a wild road trip, spirits from beyond, and a most touching relationship between a thirteen-year-old boy and his grandfather. I didn’t think Ms. Ward could top her 2011 National Book Award-winner, Salvage the Bones, but she has done so with her latest book.

In A Horse Walks into a Bar, a middle-aged stand-up comic crashes, burns, and breaks down in front of a live audience as he tells the story of his youth. This is a gut-wrenching and profoundly sad book that also happens to contains some much-needed bits that are laugh-out-loud funny. Exit West is the tale of two young adults that begins in an unnamed country on the brink of civil war. The characters’ complex relationship and their travels are described in a sparse and haunting manner, with beautiful writing. This story captures what refugees leave behind, as well as what they face once they have migrated. It is also a warning about the global refugee crisis and today’s economic disparity.

There is so much to like in Autumn, but my favorite aspects of the book were, first, the friendship between a girl named Elisabeth and her much older neighbor, Daniel, and, second, the relationship between the grown-up Elisabeth and her mother. Autumn is the initial book in a planned four-volume series, and I am looking forward to reading Ms. Smith’s Winter, released earlier this month.

Several other novels that I recommend are as follows:

  • Transit, by Rachel Cusk–This is the second novel in a trilogy (Outline was the first), and Ms. Cusk once again engages the reader through a series of vignettes about Faye, a writer and divorced mother now living in London, and the different people she encounters. Ms. Cusk’s unique style and the book’s construction make this largely plotless story a joy to read and savor.
  • 9780525509714Behold the Dreamers, by Imbolo Mbue–Published in 2016 and selected for Oprah’s Book Club, this is a fine debut novel about the difficulties faced by a married couple, Jende and Neni Jonga, after they immigrate to America from Cameroon. Also very well-told is the story of Jende’s employer, Clark Edwards, and his family.
  • The Idiot, by Elif Batuman–Slow-paced, but well worth the read is Ms. Batuman’s first novel, which is set in 1995 and is about an eighteen-year-old, Turkish-American Harvard student named Selin Karadag. Selin’s college classes, her roommates, her romantic crush, and her summer in Hungary are all quirky, and in this book Ms. Batuman’s intelligence and sense of humor both shine through.
  • Dinner at the Center of the Earth, by Nathan Englander–Employing multiple time periods and settings, and with different central characters, Mr. Englander has written an intriguing and creative book about Israeli-Palestinian relations. As noted in an NPR book review by Lizzie Skurnick,  “…this is not a novel of historical accuracy, but of historical intimacy…”.
  • The Dry, by Jane Harper–This page-turner mystery is set in a small Australian town that lacks water and prosperity, but is not short on questionable characters.
  • Night of Fire, by Colin Thubron–The fate of the six tenants and the superintendent in an old Victorian house is known from the beginning, but Mr. Thubron delivers a rewarding and thought-provoking book as he delves into the lives of the building’s occupants.

Moving away from novels, I’d like to mention two top-rate memoirs and a couple of other good books.

  • Dying: A Memoir, by the late Australian writer Cory Taylor, has been called remarkable, electrifying, and a testament to life. In my opinion, it is all these things and more.
  • The Comfort Food Diaries: My Quest for the Perfect Dish to Mend a Broken Heart, by Emily Nunn, is an excellent “how to” book: how to pick yourself up, how to move forward, and how to make some incredible-sounding meals and treats. I had the pleasure of meeting Emily a few times when she and Susan worked together at the New Yorker, and I hope that Emily will (a) keep turning out good books and (b) have me over for dinner some time.
  • Just the title of Ottessa Moshfegh’s short-story collection, Homesick for Another World, made me want to read this, and I was not disappointed in the least. Unlike many collections where some stories are very good, some are okay, and one or two are not worth the read, each of these dark, unsettling, and outright strange stories is a winner.
  • My last recommendation is a children’s book called Keith Haring: The Boy Who Just Kept Drawing. Written by the artist’s younger sister Kay A. Haring, and full of wonderful illustrations by Robert Neubecker, this picture-book biography of the late artist should be given to youngsters and owned by people of all ages. I read this book to a first-grade class in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and it was a big hit! Bravo, Ms. Haring and Mr. Neubecker.

Happy reading to all in 2018!

*****

Links to Norman's previous best-book lists: 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016