Like so many of you, I particularly treasure the long, languid summer days here in the northern latitudes. Daylight comes as early as 4am, and lingers until around 10pm. Perfect weather for savoring the long novels I have been meaning to read all year. Sometimes I read outside in the garden, sometimes on my bed with the windows open and a sweet breeze flowing through. The author must sweep me into another world, where it doesn’t matter how long it takes me to finish and I am sad when I finally have to leave.
This has to be one of a very few all-time favorites–both the book and the author. An unlikely, and hardly believable event starts this emotionally thrilling novel, set in an Ethiopia at the brink of revolution. Conjoined twin boys are born to a mother (an Indian nun!) who dies in childbirth, and a father (a hard-headed British surgeon) who abandons them. Marion and Shiva are brought up in a family of doctors who adopt them: both are drawn toward medicine, and to the same woman, which sets events in motion for Marion that he cannot control. After medical school, and upon finding that his brother has betrayed him with the woman he’d hoped to marry, he flees to the United States, finding work where he can get it–in an overcrowded, understaffed New York hospital. In time, Marion’s past catches up with him, and he finds he must confront the two people who damaged him most–his father, who left him and his brother, who betrayed him. I have listened to this book on CD, AND read it in paper form. It is that memorable, that vivid, and deserves the very wide acclaim it has received since it was published in 2009.
Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy
Who hasn’t read Anna? But who has not read Anna in the summer, taking one’s time, reading it with fresh eyes for the second, third or fourth time? That is the beauty of this classic: it holds up so solidly even after multiple readings. I often overhear people say they are reading this Tolstoy classic, and others almost swoon with envy: “I want to read it again” or “What a treat!” or “I just finished it–for the second time”. I need hardly say that this is “the” love story–thrilling, engrossing, tragic and all the other words that describe passionate and doomed love. Anna leaves her staid marriage when she falls in love with the dashing Count Vronsky, and suffers the consequences of society’s disapproval to a degree she did not anticipate. There are a number of translations, and my personal preference is the Pevear/Volokhonksy version (shown here, with an unusual cover). The depth of Russian history and culture that provides the warp and weft for this story clearly elevates it above other long novels, even other classics. I plan to go for a third reading by August.
I have raved more than once in this blog about Urrea’s work, but this novel is (to date) clearly his masterpiece. He worked on this story, on and off, for more than twenty years, and it is big-hearted and sprawling–a generous feast. It is based partly on the real life story of Urrea’s aunt Teresa. Teresita, the story’s heroine, is a young uneducated Indian with a Yaqui mother, who gave birth at age 14 then abandoned her. Teresita is raised in an abusive home, but given mentoring and protection by Huila, a healer and midwife who lives on the same ranch. She sees the potential the girl has and teaches her about the magic ofherbs and plants. Fairly early in the story, Teresita is brutally beaten, and the story takes an unexpected turn into magical realism–so skillfully done even a skeptic like me did not falter or abandon the book. The cast of characters is as colorful and multi-layered and turbulent as Mexican history itself. A beautiful, beautiful story.
Kristin Lavransdatter, by Sigrid Undset
For years a copy of this book sat on my shelves, as I had inherited it from an aunt. I had heard many people say how much they had loved it, when they read it “long ago”. Hmmm…how interesting could a story about a young Christian woman in rural, fourteenth century Norway be, I thought? As it turns out–very fascinating! The story is rich with historic and social detail, vivid landscape descriptions, and best of all, unwinds the life story of a passionate, strong-minded woman who is a bit like Anna Karenina. Kristin grows up on a prosperous farm in rural Norway and becomes betrothed to a boring yet prosperous farmer, a family friend. But before she marries, she meets a handsome and worldly knight who woos her, and Kristin gives herself to him. She becomes pregnant, then must marry him, breaking off the arranged engagement and upsetting her family, particularly her beloved father. The story is really a trilogy, and I highly recommend the translation by Tina Nunnally, now available in one volume. I hope this story never goes out of print, as it is a gem.
The Children’s Book, by A.S. Byatt
Our book club read this long, richly detailed novel when it was first published a few years ago, and we all loved it–a rarity in our group of bright, opinionated, well-read women. It was short-listed in 2009 for the Man Booker Prize. Set in England between 1895 to World War I, the book’s center is a well-known children’s author named Olive (based loosely on children’s author E. Nesbit). There are myriad characters, including many children (I counted at least eight), relatives, artists, writers and other assorted hangers-on. Byatt says she started with an idea that writers of children’s books are not necessarily “good with children”, although Olive does not abuse her own. Benign neglect is a more apt term, as she juggles supporting her large family with her writing, meetings with other artists (and admirers) and trying to track with her numerous children and her husband. What particularly stayed with me about this story was the social and cultural detail, particularly about the Arts and Crafts movement, that Byatt so skillfully wove into the story. Each page seemed like a picnic, with luscious goodies thickly spread across a colorful counterpane. Yum!
A God in Ruins, by Kate Atkinson
I loved Atkinson’s Life After Life, which I have recommended to friends and family since it was published in 2013. This is Atkinson’s “follow-up” novel, focusing this time on Teddy, the younger brother of Ursula, (the central character in Life). It is not necessary to read the other novel first, however. This is a strong, stand-alone story. Teddy is a poet and RAF fighter pilot in WWII who barely survives (fewer than half of England’s RAF pilots survived the war), to become a husband, father and grandfather. Atkinson is a master at manipulating time (and sometimes reality) in her books; in this story she illustrates the damage of war and resiliency of humans who survive repeated trauma. There is a publisher’s quote that deftly describes the theme of this book: “his greatest challenge would be to face living in a future he never expected to have”. Particularly engaging is Teddy’s caustic and challenging daughter Viola, and his relationships with his two grandchildren. But it is difficult to single out one thing that makes this novel so excellent. It was all exceptional.