It’s the Annual Late Summer Reading List, a bit later than usual! We have twelve more books to recommend in 2018, this time from the realms of fantasy, historical fiction, magic realism, and young adult lit, featuring classics and modern works. I hope you enjoy getting to know some of them.
Watership Down by Richard Adams, 1972
At home in Sandleford warren, the nervous young rabbit Fiver has a vision of the field bathed in blood. Convinced something terrible is coming, he and his even-tempered friend Hazel decide to warn the older rabbits. They are ridiculed and bullied into submission, but a small number of rabbits dissatisfied with their lot join them and they make an escape, despite the efforts of the Owsla, the warren’s military police. This is only the beginning of a harrowing journey to find and establish a new home at Watership Down. The skills they learn along the way and the tales they tell to keep themselves going, as well as the unexpected friends and foes they meet, make this an inspiring and engaging read, full of heroism and mythology. Adams has created an extremely potent world, complete with religion, civilization and culture, all threatened by incomprehensible violence.
Watership Down was distilled from stories Richard Adams told his daughters on long car rides. He insists that it was never intended to be an allegory, but readers have responded to echoes of totalitarian governments and diasporas, seeing everything from the founding of Israel to the Cold War and more. It is a testament to the strong archetypes in the novel that so many marginalized groups have identified with the struggles of these very anthropomorphized rabbits. A classic for all ages.
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See, 2005
In rural 19th century China, Lily and Snow Flower are sworn laotong, sisters contracted for life, each dedicated to the emotional support and well being of the other. The girls are best friends, going through the excruciating process of footbinding together and writing to each other upon a fan in Nü Shu (a personal writing system for women) taught to them by Lily’s aunt. This novel is the 80 year old Lily’s remembrance of their relationship, including the events that tore them apart, as Lily, with her perfectly bound feet, climbed the social ladder and Snow Flower descended into poverty and then disgrace. It is also an admission of her culpability in events that culminated in her friend’s death forty years before.
In opposition to the Western view of Asian women as weak and compliant, Snow Flower and The Secret Fan presents us with a rising current of feminism and change rebuked by the culture of the day. None of the women in this novel are wallflowers, but three dimensional beings trying to do what they believe will benefit their families most while hemmed in at every turn by a society that considered them property. Lisa See reveals the bitter fruits of anger and spite with striking candor. Lily shares with us secrets women, particularly wives and even more so mothers, share with one another, taboo secrets of sexuality, marital matters, feminine hopes and disappointments. These are secrets that, when shared with the wrong ears, can ruin a life and jeopardize future generations. Trigger warnings for violence (including a death march during the Taiping Rebellion) and abuse. This is a heart rending tale.
The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie, 2008
A flamboyant and tricky stowaway from the distant city of Florence becomes a fixture in the Mughal court in Fatehpur Sikri, India, at the right hand of the Emperor himself, with an influence that stirs up jealousy amongst the Emperor’s longstanding advisors as well as his heir. Emperor Akbar, once a mighty fighting man, is filled with thoughts of his beneficent legacy and motivated by love for the most mysterious of his many wives, an ideal woman that resides only in his mind. Or does she?
Salman Rushdie weaves magical characters that capture our affection while remaining deliciously morally ambivalent: the honorable turncoat, the faithful seductress, the thoughtful despot, the charismatic opportunist, the honorable prostitute and many more. Eroticism, sexuality and violence are vital parts of the plot. The colorful twists and turns that reveal one of the strongest, most fascinating female characters in modern fiction are spellbinding. The Enchantress of Florence is a testament to the power of human imagination and projection to mesmerize people and change the future, as well as a witness to the price that such power exerts on those who wield it.
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, 1996
It was 1969, the place a small village in rural India. Fraternal twins Rahel and Esthappen are growing up on their grandfather’s pickle farm. Their mother, Ammu, has divorced her husband because he was an alcoholic and because he sought to loan her to his employer for sex. Due to the rigidity of the caste system Ammu, an intelligent, beautiful, well educated young woman, bears the brunt of intense social stigma and her children are marked by it as well. This difficult situation is exacerbated by the death of a cousin visiting from England, sexual molestation, the flowering of a beautiful but unsanctioned love and the meanness of a relative embittered by the frustration of her own unattainable passion. What follows is a personal tragedy of epic proportions, one that will scar a family permanently.
Arundhati Roy’s passionate novel uncovers the deep pain inflicted by the caste system, revealing scathing contempt and frustration for a poisonous society that has devalued women, compassion and love. Through flashbacks (the twins are now 31 years old and about to be reunited) that feel like the circling waves of a whirlpool, the novel jumps closer and closer to that fateful day when at least five lives were ended, some by death and some by a despair that stifles future growth. All that remains to give comfort are the small things– a look, a smile, a touch– things that are both too strong and too inconsequential to be wiped out. The God of Small Things includes many forms of sexuality, including incest. I must also include trigger warnings for sexual, physical and verbal abuse.
Among Others by Jo Walton, 2011
After an accident which killed her twin sister and left Mori physically disabled and suffering from PTSD, Mori moves from Wales, where she lived with her mentally unstable mother, to England, where she lives with her emotionally remote father and attends a boarding school for girls. Even before the accident, Mori was different. She has been touched by the dark magic that emanates from her mother, a witch, and has also seen and spoken to fairies, who reside in places abandoned by humans and reclaimed by wildness. She seeks escape and meaning in her love of reading, especially science fiction and fantasy novels which are mentioned lovingly throughout the novel.
Among Others is Mori’s teenage diary, informed by a sense of her adult self. Jo Walton has called it an attempt to mythologize a certain six months of her own life, and it is the combination of magical elements with a bitingly honest voice of a teenager struggling with things that are beyond her ability to comprehend or manage that make the book so unique and moving. More of a watercolor of a time gone by than an action driven plot, it has a profundity that retains enough whimsy and humor to keep it quite enjoyable and at times, delightful. The magic helps to dissipate the pain of the abuse Mori has suffered, and Mori’s references to her reading life help to break up and distract from Mori’s difficult thoughts on sexuality and the immense pressure that teenagers feel in our modern society. A cathartic read.
Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury, 1957
The summer of 1928 was important for Douglas Spaulding. It contained the first time he consciously marked that he was alive, and consequently the first struggles he had with the knowledge that he would someday die. All of the events that happened in his small Illinois town that summer, from his grandfather’s fear that new strains of grass would kill off the dandelions to the activities of the Lonely One serial killer, from the new sneakers which he worked to pay off to the death of his great-grandmother, are inscribed in his memory. It isn’t just Douglas’s story, though. We enjoy the various voices of his community as they deal with life’s disappointments and life’s happy surprises.
Ray Bradbury’s semi-autobiographical work is unabashedly nostalgic and sentimental. It is also extremely observant and presents a time when life felt more concrete, before virtual reality had captured so much of our attention and imagination. The return to early 20th century small town Americana is both soothing and bewitching. There is a sense of, if not magic, mystery that permeates Dandelion Wine. By presenting opposites: youth and age, happiness and disappointment, routine and newness, fear and confidence, life and death, Bradbury manages to bottle an exquisite tension that unites what was originally a series of short stories into a pleasing, comforting and calming whole. A classic read for all ages.
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers, 1940
John Singer is a deaf mute living in a rural mill town in Georgia in the 1930s. When his roommate, Spiros Antonapoulos, who is also deaf and mute, has a mental breakdown and is institutionalized in another town, Singer becomes profoundly lonely. Due to his easy demeanor and ability to project understanding and compassion, people seek Singer out to tell him their troubles. There’s Mick, a poor southern school girl who wants to be a musician, Jake, a rabble-rouser and socialist activist with a drinking problem, Dr. Copeland, an African American doctor who wishes he could translate his professional success into stability for his family and progress for his people, and Biff, a cafe owner who loves his customers but loathes his wife. These four people drop their frustrations and the disappointments of their lives on Singer, who is unable to discharge or express his own feelings. This sets the stage for tragedy when Antonapoulos dies.
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is a devastating novel, all the more impressive because McCullers was 23 years old when she published it. Poverty, racism, the availability of guns, sexism– these are issues that still plague America today, despite time and effort. McCullers gives us no answers, but she is honest about these problems and about the need for people to start talking to one another across social lines. If we only speak to a mirror, a sympathetic ear attached to a silent voice like Mr. Singer, we will never sort anything out.
The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold, 2002
Raped, murdered and dismembered by her neighbor, 14 year old Susie Salmon finds herself a disembodied soul, poised between heaven and earth. She watches her family and friends struggle with her disappearance and grapple with the reality of her death, her family breaking apart under the strain. She watches her killer stalk other women. She also watches connections and relationships made because of her death flourish into what she calls the “lovely bones” of her life. Death has a certain sincerity that brings some survivors together and forces others apart.
The Lovely Bones is an impressive attempt to find meaning in a horrific death. It contains a combination of gritty realism and supernatural occurrence that keep it, for the most part, from getting overly sentimental and trite. There is one plot point I found a bit hokey, but it is forgivable in context of the complete fearlessness and impressive strength of the novel. Obviously, violence and sexuality figure heavily in the plot, but the way it deals with these taboo subjects is what gives Alice Sebold’s writing its considerable power.
A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood, 1964
Blindsided by the death of his beloved partner Jim, George, a British expatriate and professor in Los Angeles during the 1960s, sees little meaning in his continued existence. This is a day in his life, full of human contact that somehow fails to connect with the depressed 58 year old. A Single Man gives us a window into George’s mind, reporting all of his thoughts congealed into cohesive form. I have to admit that I didn’t take to George, or to this novel, right away. He haunted me for a solid week after I finished the book, winning me over gradually. George is fussy, irritable, repressed and sometimes downright unpleasant. His dislike for many of those around him, especially the neighborhood children, startled me until I acknowledged that I have similar judgemental thoughts, especially at my more vulnerable moments. Cynicism, a valid reaction to disappointment, feels a lot more attractive than it looks.
The enormity of hearing a person’s internal dialogue, comprised of countless thoughts, many of which are inappropriate, off-color and disturbing, is deeply uncomfortable, but as we push on into George’s inner being, we realize what his handicaps and foibles are, and begin to find empathy for this poor soul, made up, as we all are, of contradictory thoughts and actions that only make sense to George himself, and often not even to him. A Single Man is a poignant and disarming journey into what makes us human, especially the ugly bits we don’t like to embrace.
The Passion by Jeanette Winterson, 1987
Henri is a committed soldier in Napoleon’s army, working in the Emperor’s personal kitchen. Villanelle is the web-footed daughter of a Venetian boatman, married to an abusive gambler, while she has, quite literally, lost her heart to a passionate, married noblewoman. When Napoleon’s army begins to disintegrate in Russia, Henri finds his idolization of the tyrant empty and decides to desert. He makes friends with Villanelle, now a prostitute sold to the French army by her estranged husband, and they embark on a dangerous journey toward Venice. That journey proves to be merely the first stage of their strange relationship.
The Passion is a surrealist romance between characters who can never quite end up together. The depictions of a wintry Russia and a watery Venice full of wild nightlife are nothing short of enthralling, especially considering that Winterson had never been to either place. The characters are even more memorable, with unexpected quirks that render them each unique and undeniably human. Gender identity and fluidity, magic, unrequited love, hero worship, lasting friendship, sacrifice and madness swirl in fantastic colors toward a heartbreaking and inevitable conclusion.
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, 1869
This is perhaps the largest novel in scope in all of literature, weaving together Napoleon’s mad advance further and further eastward to Moscow and subsequent retreat with personal stories of five Russian noble families: principally the Bolkonskis, the Rostovs, and the Bezuhkovs, secondarily the Kuragins and the Drubetskoys. Their interactions, intermarriages, deaths, and struggles (both in war and personal matters) provide the human interest in the tale, while battles and military movements, meticulously researched and grippingly retold, give a sense of the immense importance of the events unfolding at the time and seek to interpret history.
War and Peace is an incredible masterpiece. Although there are sections that depart from the action and discuss the implications of the Napoleonic War, this is not a ponderous, heavy read. It is not thick and unorganized, but it is very, very long. The chief difficulty is confusion created by characters with the same first names and characters who have nicknames. Some translations are more helpful than others in this regard. Tolstoy’s character development rings true and is quite impressive. There are violent depictions of hunting and war, but reference to sexuality is restrained and remains polite, although the extramarital sex accepted in aristocratic circles, especially concerning young married women may be surprising.
Cry, The Beloved Country by Alan Paton, 1948
Reverend Stephen Kumalo has come to Johannesburg to help his sister and find his son. Sister Gertrude has become a prostitute and his son Absalom is accused of murdering a white man, Arthur Jarvis, who was an advocate for black rights. In one way or another, Gertrude, Absalom and Arthur are all casualties of South Africa’s Apartheid system, which institutionalizes racism and poisons and wastes many lives. Rev. Kumalo does his best to make things right, arranging marriage for Absalom’s pregnant girlfriend and bringing her back home, as well as befriending the dead white man’s father. The connections he makes are fruitful, bringing good things from loss.
Cry, The Beloved Country is a masterpiece, an important work about racism and its impact on society. Paton approaches the situation with enough realism to expose the rottenness at the core of the system and enough idealism to believe that love and dialogue can change the world. The subject matter is not easy, even when one knows what is right.
From the personal to the epic, all in all it is a rather serious group of novels this year, but the colorful, humorous and magical elements of many of these works provide a great deal of delight, despite the seriousness of their subjects. I hope you enjoy exploring them.