Thursday, May 30, 2013


Alone in Berlinby Hans Fallada This is one of many suggestions this year from a contributor who shared a book list from her fellow Barnard alums. (All are marked “Barnard Book Club.”)Comments: “It’s Berlin, 1940, and the city is filled with fear. At the house on 55 Jablonski Strasse, its various occupants try to live under Nazi rule in their different ways: the bullying Hitler loyalists the Persickes, the retired judge Fromm and the unassuming couple Otto and Anna Quangel. Then the Quangels receive the news that their beloved son has been killed fighting in France. Shocked out of their quiet existence, they begin a silent campaign of defiance, and a deadly game of cat and mouse develops between the Quangels and the ambitious Gestapo inspector Escherich. When petty criminals Kluge and Borkhausen also become involved, deception, betrayal and murder ensue, tightening the noose around the Quangels' necks.”

Appointment in Samarraby John O'Hara. “One of the great novels of small-town American life, Appointment in Samarra is John O’Hara’s crowning achievement. In December 1930, just before Christmas, the Gibbsville, Pennsylvania, social circuit is electrified with parties and dances. At the center of the social elite stand Julian and Caroline English. But in one rash moment born inside a highball glass, Julian breaks with polite society and begins a rapid descent toward self-destruction. Brimming with wealth and privilege, jealousy and infidelity, O’Hara’s iconic first novel is an unflinching look at the dark side of the American dream—and a lasting testament to the keen social intelligence if a major American writer. (My husband and I read this along with two other couples and discussed over dinner and several bottles of wine. Lots of lively banhulter and interesting discussion followed).”

Arabesquesby Anton Shammas (Barnard Book Club).“Arabesques is a classic, complex novel of identity, memory, and history in the Middle East and points beyond. Anton Shammas chronicles his life as an Israeli Christian Arab, dramatizing the bitter clash of traditions in a village on the Galilee just after 1948 and his search for personal identity, which leads through Paris to its climax in Iowa City.Anton Shammas, the first Arab to write a novel in Hebrew, has given us a riveting look at a people we hear too little about: Palestinian Christians. Arabesques was chosen as one of the best books of 1988 by the editors of the New York Times Book Review.”

The Bone Peopleby Keri Hulme (Barnard Book Club). “In a tower on the New Zealand sea lives Kerewin Holmes, part Maori, part European, an artist estranged from her art, a woman in exile from her family. One night her solitude is disrupted by a visitor—a speechless, mercurial boy named Simon, who tries to steal from her and then repays her with his most precious possession. As Kerewin succumbs to Simon's feral charm, she also falls under the spell of his Maori foster father Joe, who rescued the boy from a shipwreck and now treats him with an unsettling mixture of tenderness and brutality. Out of this unorthodox trinity Keri Hulme has created what is at once a mystery, a love story, and an ambitious exploration of the zone where Maori and European New Zealand meet, clash, and sometimes merge. Winner of both a Booker Prize and Pegasus Prize for Literature, The Bone People is a work of unfettered wordplay and mesmerizing emotional complexity."

On Canaan's Side by Sebastian Barry.  "a lyrical book written by an Irish playwright. It follows a woman who comes to the US on the run from the IRA. Her life is full and full of twists. It is a beautiful story and especially poignant to those of us of Irish heritage."

The Death of the Adversaryby Hans Keilson (Barnard Book Club) “Written while Hans Keilson was in hiding during World War II, the Death of the Adversary is the self-portrait of a young man helplessly fascinated by an unnamed ‘adversary’whom he watches rise to power in 1930s Germany. It is a tale of horror, not only in its evocation of Hitler’s gathering menace but also in its hero’s desperate attempt to discover logic where none exists. A psychological fable as wry and haunting as Badenheim 1939, The Death of the Adversary is a lost classic of modern fiction. A penetrating study of ordinary people resisting the Nazi occupation—and, true to its title, a dark comedy of wartime manners—Comedy in a Minor Key tells the story of Wim and Marie, a Dutch couple who first hide a Jew they know as Nico, then must dispose of his body when he dies of pneumonia. Hans Keilson at his best: deeply ironic, penetrating, sympathetic, and brilliantly modern, an heir to Joseph Roth and Franz Kafka.

Death Comes to Pemberleyby P.D. James. The novel continues Pride and Prejudice – Elizabeth and Darcy married with children – and throws in a murder mystery.

The Elephant's Journeyby Jose Saramago. “This whimsical novel tells the real-life story of how, in 1551, an elephant was sent as a gift from the King of Portugal to the Habsburg Archduke. The story is told from the viewpoint of the mahout, or elephant driver, and deals in wise, witty and digressive style with the obstacles and encounters of the journey from Lisbon and over the Alps to Vienna, during which the four-ton Solomon becomes a character of considerable pathos. The novel's unorthodox punctuation is a little annoying – accurate, subtle punctuation is surely part of the craft of writing – but does add to the cool, distanced tone of the narration. A playful, intellectual, very European novel, at times it feels reminiscent of Kafka in his lighter moments.”

Excellent Womenby Barbara Pym. “Mildred Lathbury is an‘excellent woman’ - 30's, single, capable, involved in the church, living alone in post war London. As such, she is taken for granted on every page. Do you need someone to work a jumble sale? Are you having a fight with your husband and need someone to write a note to him? Did you move out of the house and you need someone to meet and manage the moving company? Do you have a chicken at home and need someone to cook it? The list goes on and on and on. And of course, an excellent woman MUST be in want of a husband. Mildred is assumed to be in love with every man she meets no matter how much she protests (which is quite funny when the clergyman becomes engaged and Mildred is battling condolences from all sides.) There seem to be a lot of comparisons to Austen but I don't really agree. While they both write about the quiet domestication of everyday life, Austen ultimately ends with the realization of true love and marriage. There is no such goal or outcome here. Pym exposes the foibles of the excellent women as well as those who impose on them with humor and sympathy.”

The Fault in Our Starsby John Green. This was on last year’s list. It’s categorized as young adult, but many of you have read it. Hazel, a 16-year-old girl with terminal cancer, meets and falls in love with a boy in her cancer support group. They go on a quest together to find the author of a book they are both obsessed with. Green handles the subject of teens with cancer with pathos, but not bathos. Soon to be a major motion picture!

Follyby Laurie R. King. “Rae Newborn is a woman on the edge: on the edge of sanity, on the edge of tragedy, and now on the edge of the world. She has moved to an island at the far reaches of the continent to restore the house of an equally haunted figure, her mysterious great-uncle; but as her life begins to rebuild itself along with the house, his story starts to wrap around hers. Powerful forces are stirring, but Rae cannot see where her reality leaves off and his fate begins. Fifty-two years old, Rae must battle the feelings that have long tormented her--panic, melancholy, and a skin-crawling sense of watchers behind the trees. Is Rae paranoid, as her family and the police believe, or is the threat real? Is the island alive with promise--or with dangers? With Folly, award-winning author Laurie R. King once again powerfully redefines psychological suspense on a sophisticated and harrowing new level, and proves why legions of readers and reviewers have named her a master of the genre.”
 (Barnard Book Club)

The Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy.  “Saga” is apt.  This book’s 800 plus pages (it’s actually three books and two novellas) are why I haven’t had more contributions to the list this year.  It’s a family saga about an upper middle class British family from the Victorian era through the 1920s.  Galsworthy won the Nobel Prize for fiction in 1932 for Forsyte.  Brilliant writing, fascinating characters, loads of things happen.  And now I can treat myself to a beautiful BBC miniseries made from it (one of several).   I link to the Oxford Kindle version, but I think there are free kindle versions, too, though I cannot vouch for them.    

A Happy Marriage: A Novelby Rafael Yglesias. ". . . both intimate and sprawling: the story of Enrique Sabas and his wife, Margaret; a novel that alternates between the romantic misadventures of the first three weeks of their acquaintance and the final weeks of Margaret's life as she says good-bye to her family, friends and children – and to Enrique. Spanning thirty years . . . it is an achingly honest book about what it means for two people to spend a lifetime together." (Barnard Book Club).

Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset. Historical epic set in 14th century Norway.  “I highly recommend the Tiina Nunnally translation. Tell people not to be daunted by the # of pages.  It is soooo good it ends up being a quick read.”
Marjorie Morningstarby Herman Wouk “Published in 1955, about a woman who rebels against the confining middle-class values of her industrious American-Jewish family. Her dream of being an actress ends in failure. She ultimately forfeits her illusions and marries a conventional man with whom she finds sufficient contentment as a suburban wife and mother, thus finally coming to accept her parents' values.”  (Barnard Book Club)

The Man Who Loved Childrenby Christina Stead “Every family lives in an evolving story, told by all its members, inside a landscape of portentous events and characters. Their view of themselves is not shared by people looking from outside in--visitors, and particularly not relatives--for they have to see something pretty humdrum, even if, as in this case, the fecklessness they complain of is extreme.” (Barnard Book Club).

Mrs. Miniverby Jan Struther. “This book is in no way about action or adventure of war. Instead it is overflowing with observations about human nature that were amazingly accurate - the kind of thing that you never thought of before but once put into words you realize that so many feelings and actions are universal to the human race. Mrs. Miniver musings include trying to put words to the sound that her windshield wipers make and mustering up false urgency to Christmas shop early. She even contemplates the personalities of the people who go in with the swing of a swinging door vs those who push against the flow to try to enter faster. Somehow when I write them down they just don’t sound as brilliant but I can pick up the book now, turn to any page and find a little gem. Meanwhile, the war is brewing and Mrs Miniver takes her children to be fitted for gas masks. She also goes to the dentist and watches the last autumn leaf fall from the tree outside her window…so life is going on while the world slowly boils.”

The Night Circusby Erin Morgenstern. This book was unlike anything I’ve ever read and doesn’t neatly fit into any one category. It is in its own fantasy-magical-historical-science fiction-romance category, I guess. So, how to sum up the story? Well, there’s this circus and it only opens at night, and the performers are odd, and there seem to be tent after tent of delights and daring, and people become so addicted to it that they travel the world following the circus like 19th century Deadheads. And there are two shady older men who send a boy and a girl into the circus to battle one another, and, of course, the young couple falls in love which thwarts the intentions of the older men. Or does it? Astonishingly well-written and utterly captivating . (h/t contributor Michelle Woodward’s book list)

Norwegian Woodby Haruki Murakami.  The novel is set in Tokyo during the late 1960s, a time when Japanese students, like those of many other nations, were protesting against the established order ... The story was subsequently included in the collectionBlind Willow, Sleeping Woman. Norwegian Wood was hugely popular with Japanese youth and made Murakami something of a superstar in his native country (apparently much to his dismay at the time)  (Barnard Book Club).

Old Filth and The Man in the Wooden Hatby Jane Gardam. These were on last year’s list but still get mentions. “Don't be put off by the drab covers and unappealing titles. These two books are my favorites of the year. Traveling back and forth in time, they are the story of Edward Feathers ( Filth), his wife Betty and Filth's rival Terry Veneering. Lovely passages from the vague point of view of the aging but still feisty British. Filth is a ‘raj orphan’, one of the children sent home to English foster care to avoid the tropical diseases in colonial outposts in the Far East. Love story, adventure story , moves from Hong Kong to the British countryside . Funny, sad, and very British.”

Object Lessons by Anna Quindlen. “Quindlen gives readers a superb novel about an Irish-Italian family in the late 1960s. Quindlen’s sharp eye for the way we live, her intelligence and humor have won her an enormous following, and this coming-of-age tale of an entire generation will delight readers of any era.”

The Paris Wife by Paula McClain. What, you haven't read it yet?  What are you waiting for, silly!  
State of Wonder by Ann Patchett.  “This started a little slow but then I was hooked and couldn't put it down. She writes great stories. I have thought of it several times since I finished which is a sign of a book I enjoyed immensely.”

Suddenly, a Knock on the Door: StoriesStories by Etgar Keret.  “Short stories. Bringing up a child, lying to the boss, placing an order in a fast food restaurant:  in Etgar Keret’s new collection, daily life is complicated, dangerous and full of yearning.  In his most playful and most mature work yet, the living and the dead, silent children and talking animals, dreams and waking life coexist in an uneasy world. Overflowing with absurdity, humor, sadness and compassion.   (Barnard Book Club).

Suttreeby Cormac McCarty “All of McCarthy’s books present the reviewer with the same welcome difficulty. They are so good that one can hardly say how good they really are. . . . Suttree may be his magnum opus. Its protagonist, Cornelius Suttree, has forsaken his prominent family to live in a dilapidated houseboat among the inhabitants of the demimonde along the banks of the Tennessee River. His associates are mostly criminals of one sort or another, and Suttree is, to say the least, estranged from what might be called normal society. But he is so involved with life (and it with him) that when in the end he takes his leave, the reader’s heart goes with him. Suttree is probably the funniest and most unbearably sad of McCarthy’s books . . . which seem to me unsurpassed in American literature.”

The Transit of Venusby Shirley Hazzard.“National Book Critics Circle Award-winner Hazzard here tells of two sisters, Grace and Caroline Bell. Born in Australia and orphaned at an early age, the two make their way to England. There Grace opts for marriage and its securities; Caroline reaches for more and loves not always wisely but well.” (Barnard Book Club) 

Two Livesby William Trevor. “William Trevor's astonishing range as a writer--his humor, subtlety, and compassionate grasp of human behavior--is fully demonstrated in these two short novels. In Reading Turgenev, a lonely country girl escapes her loveless marriage in the arms of a bookish young man. In My House in Umbria, a former madam befriends the other survivors of a terrorist bombing with surprising results. Nominated for the Booker Award.”  (Barnard Book Club)

A Visit from the Goon Squadby Jennifer Egan. This was on last year's list - a top pick.  Another with linked short stories. "A fun but thoughtful book about ... well... about a whole bunch of people who all have some connection to each other, some more than others, all dealing with different stages of life, and we meet several of them over again as they age or in the past.  Confused?  You won't be.  I never felt out of place or time in this book. 

We Were the Mulvaneysby Joyce Carol Oates. This has appeared on previous lists, and now the Barnard book club has added their endorsement. “A family living in the small, rural town of Mt. Ephraim, New York, during the latter part of the 20th century, are the perfect family: four children, the owners of a successful roofing business, and a high social status. We Were the Mulvaneystells the tale of the demise of this perfect family—an incident that is hushed up in town and never spoken of again. It is this incident that shatters the family fabric with tragic consequences. On St. Valentine's night, 1976, Marianne Mulvaney, after prom, goes to a party where she becomes intoxicated and is raped by an upperclassman whose father is a well-respected businessman and friend of Mr. Mulvaney. After many years, the Mulvaneys meet once again.”

A Widow for One Yearby John Irving. “The first half of Irving's ninth novel tells the story of Eddie O'Hare, a prep school student with literary aspirations who lands a job as a personal assistant to noted children's author Ted Cole in the summer of 1958. O'Hare spends most of the time in bed with Cole's wife, Marion. The second half of the book describes O'Hare's acquaintance, decades later, with Ruth Cole, Ted's daughter, who is also a successful writer. While researching her latest novel, Ruth witnesses the murder of an Amsterdam window prostitute. As in The World According to Garp, nearly every character in the book churns out reams of Irving-esque prose. It's hard to empathize with these dreary people, and their picaresque adventures seem to lack any thematic relevance. Instead of ending, the book simply runs out of steam. Still, there are legions of rabid Irving fans who will want to read every word he has written.”  (Barnard Book Club)

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