I see now that the path I choose through the maze makes me what I am. I am not only a thing, but also a way of being—one of many ways—and knowing the paths I have followed and the ones left to take will help me understand what I am becoming. ― Daniel Keyes, Flowers for Algernon
From the whimsical and fantastic to the challenging and devastating, here is our second annual late summer reading list. Enjoy! There is something for a variety of tastes.
Haroun and the Sea of Stories – Salman Rushdie, 1990
When Haroun’s mother, Soraya, leaves his father, the celebrated storyteller known as Rashid the Ocean of Notions (to his friends) and the Shah of Blah (to his enemies), Haroun is horrified to find his father’s talent drying up and his own concentration shortened to small bursts 11 minutes long. The ensuing turbulence will not only threaten his family and his hometown, but people in neighboring regions and even the citizens of a fantastic world parallel to his own, where the fabled Sea of Stories has been poisoned.
Full of youthful exuberance, this wonderfully compact fairy tale combines delightfully wicked humor with a deft combination of personal and national turmoil. If these characters don’t make you laugh out loud you are made of sterner stuff than I am. Haroun and the Sea of Stories is highly recommended for any and all readers.
The Onion Girl – Charles de Lint, 2001
Another tale of the intersection of the dream world and reality, this is the story of artist Jilly Coppercorn, a forty-something survivor who has overcome a childhood of abuse and a stormy young adulthood, managing somehow to retain her empathy and optimism. When she is struck by a car, her apartment robbed and her paintings destroyed, all in quick succession, no one can think who might wish to harm her. Meanwhile, in a coma, Jilly has found rest in her dreams and is beginning to wonder if she wants to come back to everyday life at all. Native American myths blend with fairy tales as her friends, several of whom are dream walkers, work to save her life from a powerful foe.
The Onion Girl is the eighth book in The Newford Series, but reads well by itself while making you curious about the rest of the books. If you are squeamish, you should know that the descriptions of abuse get the point across without being gratuitous. The beauty and detail of the fantasy world and the closeness of Jilly’s interesting set of friends eclipse the darker elements of this excellent and unique story.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn – Betty Smith, 1943
There is a tenacious tree called the Tree of Heaven, which manages to grow despite scarcity of water, poor soil and general lack of attention. One of these trees grows in the courtyard of twelve year old Francie Nolan, the daughter of immigrants doing their best to provide a stable home despite desperate poverty. Her mother, Katie, has become a fierce breadwinner with her emotions tightly in check, while her beloved father, with his easy manner and beautiful singing voice, has a depressive streak that sets him on a path to an early grave. As a teenage female in the early twentieth century, Francie experiences a vicious series of setbacks, betrayals and disappointments, including her father’s death and her mother’s decision to send only her brother to high school.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is heavily autobiographical and a testament to human, especially feminine, resilience. Francie’s (and Betty Smith’s) confidence grows as she writes, making the reader feel like she is a close friend.
A Death in the Family – James Agee, 1957
James Agee’s posthumous masterpiece is also an autobiographical novel. It explores the events surrounding the death of Agee’s father in an automobile accident. We see Rufus, Agee’s foil, a ten year old boy in 1915, growing up happily in Knoxville, Tennessee, enjoying warm summer nights in his neighborhood and watching a Charlie Chaplin film with his father, Jay. He feels safe with his father near to watch over him and protect him from darkness. The senselessness and randomness of death takes away this security. Jay was not baptized, which creates conflict and fear within his wife, Rufus’s mother, Mary, and the community. This conflict spills over Rufus and his younger sister Catherine, and is brought in to clear focus by a priest who first suggests that the children should not attend their father’s memorial service (they are, in fact, not allowed to go) and then refuses to read words of comfort over Jay’s grave since he was not a believer.
My father died when I was ten, and though my experience was quite different, I am astounded by the vulnerability Agee manifests in A Death in the Family and the clear, naked pain of his voice. I’ve never looked at butterflies the same way, and you may not either.
Beloved – Toni Morrison, 1987
Former slaves Sethe and Paul D. are reunited in Cincinnati, Ohio after years of tremendous hardship and injustice. They would like to build a new life together, but there is a ghost in Sethe’s home, a result of an unspeakable ordeal many years ago. As this creature morphs and seeks to strengthen its hold on Sethe, Paul (and the reader with him) slowly learns the truth that everyone in the neighborhood knows. Will his love and affection be enough to silence Sethe’s demons, demons that have been fitted to her by the whip of slavery and solidified by her own peers, or will it be polluted as well?
Beloved is a rich and heartbreaking novel, spiritually sensitive, eloquent and astute. Horror takes on love and there is never a moment when you don’t have doubts as to which will be victorious.
We Need to Talk About Kevin – Lionel Shriver, 2003
In the midst of a successful career, Eva decides to have a child, although she has doubts. The decision will change her life and the lives of everyone around her in a profound and unexpected way. Kevin will grow from a calculated, vengeful and unemotional baby into a young murderer capable of taking multiple lives in cold blood. Eva will always wonder whether her lack of connection to him at his birth gave him a large capacity for rage or whether it was always a part of his nature. It is an unanswerable question. No amount of background (which is copiously provided) can prepare the reader for the gory details of the day Kevin explodes, setting in motion an intricate, gruesome and risky plot that culminates inside his school cafeteria.
We Need to Talk About Kevin is not for the faint of heart, but it is told with such frightening raw honesty that it makes the reader tremble at how much research must have gone into Shriver’s writing. From beginning to end, she pulls no punches, creating an illuminating horror story from a dirty corner of American society.
Dune – Frank Herbert, 1965
Duke Leto Atreides of the planet Caladan has been named Governor of the immensely valuable planet of Arrakis, better known to outsiders as Dune. The spice Melange, an addictive drug which extends and enriches life and is required for interstellar space travel, is mined in the dangerous deserts on Arrakis, presided over by deadly dust storms and colossal sandworms. Aware that this appointment is a trap set by the Harkonnens, a rival house within the Empire, but unable to see any other course of action, Leto moves with his concubine, Jessica, and his son, Paul, to this new and fearsome planet, unaware of the extreme power beginning to awaken in Paul, who is destined to become a super being who will fulfill prophecies across the cosmos. The personal tragedy and loss of innocence that results will play out on a grand scale, setting fire to conflict that will engulf Arrakis, the Empire and worlds yet unknown.
In Dune, Herbert has created several multi-faceted worlds, complete with multiple races, languages, religions and customs. In addition to this fantastic world building, he has given us an immensely moving story, which is probably at its best when it dramatizes the formidable bond between a mother and her child.
The City of Your Final Destination, Peter Cameron, 2002
Omar has been approved for a fellowship at The University of Kansas. The subject is an autobiography of the late Latin American author Jules Gund. The only problem is that he doesn’t actually have permission from the author’s estate to write the book. To be honest, they have denied his request completely. His intrepid girlfriend, Deirdre, talks him into traveling to South America to meet the author’s eccentric and charming family at their remote home, Ochos Rios, in an attempt to convince them otherwise. When he arrives unannounced, he gets quite a reaction from the Gunds. What he doesn’t expect is how Ochos Rios and the Gund family will change his life forever.
The City of Your Final Destination is a romantic and sweetly humorous tale of what can happen when you leave your comfort zone and let yourself live. Cameron’s light touch and immense talent for subtext keep the piece from waffling in sentimentality.
Reservation Blues – Sherman Alexie, 1995
One evening the local storyteller Thomas Builds-the-Fire picks up blues musician Robert Johnson at a crossroads on the Spokane Reservation. Johnson, who has faked his own death, is looking for help with a certain Gentleman (the Devil) who is on his trail and Thomas takes him to the foot of Wellpinit Mountain so he can look for Big Mom, an earth spirit who might be able to help with his troubles. In return, Johnson leaves Thomas his magical guitar. After Thomas meets up with Victor Joseph and Junior Polatkin, the three get into a fight and the guitar is damaged. The guitar then tells Thomas that the three of them are to start a blues band to make music for the reservation, and Coyote Springs is born. Before long, the trio is practicing in a defunct grocery store and begins booking gigs. This irreverent, absurdist tale is the story of the rise and fall of the band and its hard drinking, fist-swinging, blue-streak swearing members who, faced with a world that is prejudiced against them, find unlikely success and then lose it all.
Sherman Alexie’s style is original and mesmerizing, making Reservation Blues both hilarious and moving. It also features sex, violence, rough language, drinking and drugs, so don’t expect a Boy Scout picnic.
Snow Falling on Cedars – David Guterson, 1994
Carl Heine’s body is pulled from the sea off Puget Sound on September 16, 1954, caught in his own fishing nets, his watch stopped ominously at 1:47 am. Circumstantial evidence armed with the crushing weight of prejudice points to Kabuo Miyamoto, a Japanese American fisherman and war hero. The island of San Piedro stands ready for retribution. An ex-marine who lost an arm fighting the Japanese in World War II, journalist Ishmael Chambers finds himself covering the case. What he conceals behind a mask of racial hatred and anger is that his first love and sexual partner was a young Japanese girl named Hatsue Imada, who is now the wife of Kabuo Miyamoto. History is retold in flashbacks that reveal the intensity and fragility of young love, the detention of innocent Japanese Americans at Mazanar internment camp and the suspicious and duplicitous treatment these people received upon their return from captivity. Somehow, Ishmael must wade through all of this memory to answer the question at hand: How did Carl Heine die and was Kabuo Miyamoto involved?
Snow Falling on Cedars is a gorgeous and stirring novel. The extreme restraint of the characters only heightens the depth of their emotion when they break and we get a glimpse into their souls. There are frank and intimate descriptions of teenage sex which may make some readers uncomfortable.
Death of a Red Heroine – Qiu Xiaolong, 2000
The year is 1990 and the massacre at Tiananmen Square is a recent memory, creating a deep sense of fear and uncertainty across China. Guan Hongying, a celebrated Chinese National Model Worker (an employee honored for industriousness and patriotism), is murdered, stuffed naked into a trash bag and thrown into a Shanghai canal. Chief Inspector Chen is called in to investigate. More erudite than the typical police officer, Chen is a poet and a translator by education and inclination, assigned to the Police Department by the will of the Communist Party. When he and his subordinate, the old fashioned and hardworking Detective Yu Guanming, manage to uncover this very public woman’s carefully concealed private life, they find that all evidence points to the son of a a high ranking party official. How will they bring the murderer to justice without ruining their careers or losing their lives?
Chen’s musings frequently include poetry, which is an extremely alluring literary device, giving the illusion that we are reading a personal document or manuscript. The formal beauty of the verse also serves to balance the gruesomeness of the murder. Written by Chinese dissident Qiu Xiaolong, who works and lives in the U.S., Death of a Red Heroine is more about political intrigue than murder. The search for justice is perilous when the criminal can use the system to cleanse away his guilt.
Flowers for Algernon, Daniel Keyes, 1966
Charlie is 32 years old. Due to conditions at his birth, his IQ stands at 68 and he is barely able to function as an adult. His uncle has found him a menial job at a bakery, but Charlie desires something more, so he enrolls in a program for adults with learning difficulties. His attitude and innocence charm the teacher, Miss Alice Kinnian. When she is approached by two scientists, Dr. Nemur and Dr. Strauss, looking for a test subject for a promising experimental brain surgery Alice immediately recommends Charlie. Nemur and Strauss have already performed the surgery successfully on a mouse named Algernon, increasing his cognitive capacity exponentially. Charlie embarks on an amazing journey to explore himself, but his increased awareness causes him pain and anxiety. People that he believed friends turn out to be cruel and abusive and his own sexual desires prove difficult to understand and manage. As he begins to find a fragile balance between his increased intelligence and his humanity, Algernon the mouse falters, and Charlie begins to sense that he may not have much time.
Straddling several genres: science fiction, romance, drama, Flowers for Algernon is a powerful and poignant exploration of what it means to be human, from the enchanting to the repulsive. Daniel Keyes taught English to special needs students for a time, and possesses rare insight into the experience of people who lie outside of “normal” cognitive development, as well as appreciation and wonder at the immense dignity and value of people that are so often dismissed by society. His writing is extremely perceptive and fearless.