Saturday, August 6, 2016


So what have you been reading? I love it when somebody asks me that question - or when I can ask that question and hear some interesting answers. Although I  won't be on holiday myself until late August when I'll visit my dear friend Noreen in Biarritz,  I'm already wondering what should I bring her.  I work in a bookstore! Surely I must find something unusual. Here are a few top choices.

 Han Kang's The Vegetarian winner of this years Man Booker International prize, was a favorite at our bookstore this summer. Several colleagues were reading and discussing it, so I also picked up this electrifying, erotic story about compulsion and damage.  It's told from several points of view and centers around Yeong-hye, who after a series of troubling dreams, announces she's becoming a vegetarian.  But her traditional Korean family sees this decision as subversive.  Then her brother-in-law, a painter,  secretly recruits her for his art installation and paints her body in flowers. Who is damaged? And what does it mean to take a stand? And is Yeong-hye the blank canvas everybody thinks she is, or is she more complex than her well-adjusted sister?  I was riveted by this story from start to finish, and utterly drawn in to its peculiar world.

Which brings me to Hanya Yanagiharaso's A Little Life- National Book Award finalist and runner up for the Booker Prize. This hefty novel follows a circle of New York friends from their twenties into their fifties. One of them is scarred by childhood abuse and trauma. He's also a cutter, so the scarring continues. If you thought The Vegetarian was a heart breaker, try this on for size. I found myself wondering if it is ever possible to love a damaged person out of their damage and beyond it. How we want that answer to be simple! Accompanying these characters through their struggle is at times Dickensian, if not downright Voltairian in scope, but in the end, maybe my question about damage no longer makes much sense.

And now I desperately need something light! That's where Geoff Dyers' White Sands comes in.  I zipped right through these essays for their intelligence, humor and range. If you liked  his collection Yoga For People Who Cant Be Bothered To Do It, you will enjoy this too. His essay on visiting the northern lights is laugh out loud Dyer at his best.

But my favorite read of the last several months has to be Magda Szabo's The Door.  It's a story of  fierce loyalty and deep incompatibility between Magda Szabo  and her housekeeper Emerence. Magda is an important writer devoted to the life of the mind. But Emerence is a Hungarian peasant, immaculate, tireless, and with rules that are set in stone. You will become thoroughly engaged in Magda's struggle to find intimacy with this woman who although very close to her heart, frequently drives her to distraction.

And by the way, look out for an upcoming release - Szabo's novel Iza's Ballad  newly translated by George Szirtes- in another New York Review Of Books edition to be published in October.

Another lovely book I picked up this season was I Refuse by Per Petterson. His Out Stealing Horses was recommended by novelist and friend Anna Jaquiery.  In poetic, unpretentious and precise language,  it delivered complex characters facing down their demons  And here, a chance early morning encounter, rekindles painful memories for two friends who have since grown apart. Petterson is great on the deep longings  and the essential loneliness of his characters against a sparse Norwegian landscape. It's a trip worth taking.

I'd also like to recommend Elizabeth Strout's My Name Is Lucy Barton for  its smooth as silk psychological complexity and heart.  Also Bonnie Nadzam's new novel Lion. Loved her debut Lamb.  So want to love this too.  But  I have to confess, I'm still only half way through...

And let me give a final shout out to Lara Vapnaya's latest novel Still Here. When Russian friends living in New York struggle to find meaning in the digital age, one develops an app called Virtual Grave, designed to maintain a dead person’s on-line presence.  But is the virtual grave technology itself?  Vapnayar’s best pages return to Moscow, where a messy and difficult experience is vividly recounted.

Happy Reading everyone!

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