{Reading} Summer Must-Reads

We lucked out —  an FOF and former New York Times book reviewer, Linda Wolfe, lives in the apartment next door to the FabOverFifty offices! We asked our brilliant neighbor for her summer book picks. Luckily she obliged… 

1. The Free World, by David Bezmozgis
For the joy of discovering a wonderful new writer: Well, he’s not brand-new. A book of his short fiction, Natasha and Other Stories, came out in 2004. But I missed it, so he’s new to me. And what a swell find he is! In The Free World, the Krasnovskys, a family of Soviet Jewish emigrès, wait impatiently in Rome to discover if they can be placed in the U.S. or Canada or must go to Israel, which is definitely not a place they’d care to settle in. {Read More}
For one thing, there they’d be so worried about destruction they might as well have stayed home; for another, they’re tired of patriotism. As one character explains, after living his life in the Soviet Union all he wants is to get to a country with the fewest parades. The family is so well drawn that each individual begins to seem as real as a member of one’s own family, appealing yet aggravating, fabulous yet flawed. There’s the womanizing son Alec, his melancholy wife Polina, his brash brother Karl, his noisy nephews, his warm-hearted mother, and the family patriarch, Samuil, his grouchy father. Slowly revealed, their pasts form an epic tale of generational conflict marked by unshakeable devotion and unseverable attachment. 

Each member of the Krasnovskys has his or her own reasons for emigrating. Alec has been stunted by the conformity of Russian life, the way no advancement or achievement was possible for him in the Soviet Union of the 1970s, Polina is seeking adventure, even though it means being torn away from her sister, the only person she has ever truly loved, Karl wants to make money, bundles of it, and the West seems to offer boundless, if not necessarily legal, opportunities, Mrs. Krasnovsky was once a physician but has subsided into mere grandmotherhood and wants religious freedom for her descendants, and Samuil, a hero of World War II who still treasures his medals and worships the Soviet Union, sees no reason to leave but is dragged unwillingly along by the others.

In Rome the family has turbulent adventures: suspenseful encounters with black marketeers, touching affairs with unsuitable partners, unfortunate pregnancies, unending disputes. But whatever the miseries he’s created for his characters, Bezmozgis’s take on the family’s plight is wry and humourous. This is book that will make you laugh as well as cry.

The critic for one esteemed publication compared Bezmozgis to Philip Roth. I can see why. Like Roth, he dabbles in tragedy behind a mask of jokiness. He’s not raunchy, like Portnoy’s Papa, yet he’s every bit as witty. But here his resemblance to Roth ends. Roth’s fictional absorption is with himself; Bezmozgis is far more interested in the lives of others.

2. State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett
For traveling, via fiction, to a far-away exotic world: The heroine of Ann Patchett’s fascinating new novel is a young research scientist, Dr. Marina Singh, who works in the mundane headquarters of a big Minnesota pharmaceutical company until she’s sent to the wilds of the Brazilian jungle to investigate the dubious work of her dismissive one-time teacher, Dr. Annick Swenson. Swenson is supposed to be developing a new fertility drug that will allow women of any age – even old age – to bear children. {Read More}
The lordly Swenson’s research facility is up some tributary of the Amazon, she takes no phone calls, opens no mail, and allows no one to know her exact whereabouts. Marina must first wait to see her for weeks until she puts in an appearance at her apartment in the torrid city of Manaus, with its “thick brown soup” of a river, its “blinding torrential downpours that seemed to rise out of clear skies and turn the streets into wild rivers that ran ankle deep,” and its market where “the smell of so many dead fish and chickens and sides of beef tilting precariously towards rot in the still air made her hold a crumpled T-shirt over the lower half of her face.”
Why does Dr. Swenson make herself so hard to reach? What is going on at her research center? Why has a colleague of Marina’s died there? And has Dr. Swenson gone mad, or has she merely lost her moral compass – if she ever had one? This book, with more than a touch of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, is a mystery as well as a stirring evocation of a primitive world and a deft exploration of the character of two brilliant women. As the novel unfolds, the self-effacing Marina will in time discover Swenson’s secrets, but in the process she must take on her teacher and gain the strength to expose the shenanigans of the drug company, whose CEO just happens to be her lover.
You’ll be with Marina, learning her thoughts as if inside her head and experiencing her alien surroundings with her distinctive eyes and ears, throughout this stunning tale.
3. Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks
For being transported into a different, long-vanished, world: Brooks, author of the incomparable March, set during the years of America’s Civil War, and Year of Wonders, set in England during the Middle Ages, this time takes us back to Martha’s Vineyard in the year 1660. There, teenager Bethia Mayfield, daughter of a Puritan missionary to the island’s “salvages,” that is, its native population, forms an unlikely friendship with Caleb, né Cheeshahteaumauck, nephew of an Indian high-priest and healer. The relationship between the pair blossoms, and eventually sees the two of them leave the island and, in one of the book’s most fascinating segments, take up residence in a swampy, smelly Cambridge, Massachusetts. {Read More}
Bethia becomes an indentured servant at a prep school, while Caleb studies to get admitted to Harvard, whose first school was built as an institution for the education and religious conversion of Indians, until more appropriate loves and painful tragedies separate them and the world they once knew splinters. Brilliantly researched, the book renders its long ago period exquisitely, and enables the author to effortlessly explore the efforts of well-intentioned early settlers and native Americans to understand and get on with one another. They were efforts that would – as history tells us – be doomed to failure for centuries to come by avarice, suspiciousness, fear and violence.
4. In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson
For you history buffs out there: Larson, who wrote the bestseller The Devil in the White City, has a way with nonfiction that makes it compulsively compelling reading. His latest book, as its subtitle says, is about an American family living in Germany during Hitler’s rise to power. What a time! And what a family! The father is William E. Dodd, America’s ambassador to Germany from 1933 to 1937, the mother his eminently proper wife Mattie, and their two children, twenty-eight-year-old Bill and twenty-four-year-old Martha. She’s the star of the family, a glamorous flirt who earned a reputation as a latter-day Scarlett O’Hara. {Read More}
She attracted, and toyed with, American literary stars like Thomas Wolfe, Carl Sandburg and Thornton Wilder, and had sexual affairs with a parade of prominent Nazis, including the chief of Germany’s foreign news service, a German flying ace, and the head of the country’s Gestapo. (There probably could just as easily have been, had Germany’s Chancellor been so inclined, Adolph Hitler himself; the at first empty-headed Martha was thrilled when he kissed her hand at a party.) Still, as she matured, Martha grew disillusioned with Naziism, as did her parents. At first they’d easily accepted conditions in Berlin, blithely ignoring the atmosphere of terror that was building all around them: the SS beatings of American tourists; the abrupt vanishing of Berliners who expressed reservations about Hitler; the persecution of the Jews. “We sort of don’t like Jews anyway,” Martha told a friend one day. And her father, surprised but pleased by the numerous luxuriously furnished mansions available in Berlin, had taken one of the grandest for an exceedingly low rent, only to be annoyed to discover the Jewish owner’s wife and children living in cramped quarters on the top floor.
But the clueless Dodds will eventually come to realize the hideousness of the Nazi regime, and in doing so, they will make the inner journey that America itself will make, a journey from looking the other way to being ready to take up arms against Hitler. Larson’s achievement is to make this story, one you may think you already know, fresh, new, and utterly transporting.
5. Go the F@#k to Sleep by Adam Mansbach, illustrated by Ricardo
For total unadulterated fun: If you haven’t already bought this book, hie thee off to the nearest bookstore or Go Immediately to the online kind – no, don’t press the Kindle or Nook button. This is a book to own in its striking hard covers. Not necessarily for you to keep, but for you to give to the parents of your oh-so-adorable grandchildren. And if you don’t have any grandchildren yet, save it till you do, because it’s already a classic, and will be one for years to come. {Read More}
It’s Mansbach’s take on Goodnight, Moon, and the other sleepy-time books that toddlers love, and that they ask their parents to read over to them. And over. And over. And then fetch them a glass of water. And another. It’s bedtime poetry for the exhausted parent, plus downright gorgeous illustrations of cherubic kids and dozing lions and tigers and kitty cats and froggies. It’s a pretty book that’s pretty damned insightful and speaks truth to convention.
  • Bibliophile

    These look like great recommendations–thanks, Linda! The only one I’ve already read is GTFTS, but I think it’s due for a re-read.