Iris, a single young woman with relationship problems, discovers that she has a great aunt who has been locked away in a mental institution for 60 years. Esme Lennox is the great aunt and because the institution is shutting down Esme is handed over to the care of Iris, her one remaining, functional relative.
The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell is a beautifully written, haunting story of family secrets, denial, tragedy and betrayal. As the story unfolds the author carries us further and further into psyches of Esme, broken but not destroyed, and her sister Kitty, who is still hanging on, though wrecked with Alzheimer’s. Why was Esme shut away forever at age 16, never mentioned by her family again?
If you like rolicking, picaresque novels, you will love Handling Sin. Written in the ’80s(?), it remains one of my favorites.
A mild mannered insurance agent is sedately approaching middle age, living out his comfortable life in a small No. Carolina town. He receives news that his vagabond father has passed away, but to receive his inheritance he has to track down his father’s trumpet, last seen in the possession of a young, attractive black woman who may or may not have been his father’s mistress.
The hero rounds up his S. Panza-like sidekick and off they go on a madcap quest across the South. After many hilarious adventures they also absorb a few life lessons. Can’t really describe many details without giving away a few surprises. So give it a try.
The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, is a story of betrayal, love, and redemption set in modern Afghanistan. Amir, son of a wealthy Afghan businessman, is best friends with Hassan, the son of the household servant. Amir lacks the courage to defend his friend from the brutality of local bullies; this action and the resulting guilt and shame changes the destiny of both families.
The Kite runner spans over three decades of great upheaval in Afghanistan. We in the West knew so little about this country until the events of September 11th propelled the US to invade and oust the fundamentalist Taliban. There was a monarchy, then a democracy, the Soviets invaded, then they were expelled, the Northern Alliance and infighting among Afghan tribes brought destruction to Kabul, the Taliban – punitive, oppressive order. Hundreds of thousands of Afghans fled Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion. Most travelled first to Pakistan. Those who could, including in this novel Amir and his father, came to the U.S, where the immigrant story is so familiar – former generals and surgeons working gas pumps to stay alive. All hope is placed on the younger generation to succeed.
In Jonathan Safran’s Extremely Loud, Incredibly Close we are introduced to 9 year old Oskar Schell, a highly intelligent, inventive, precocious boy coming to grips with the loss of his father who died when the World Trade Center collapsed on 9-11. Oskar discovers a mysterious key in his father’s closet with the word “Black” written on the envelope that holds the key. He decides to interview every person in NYC’s five boroughs with the last name of Black, and sets off every weekend, on foot to find them. At the same time a parallel story is unfolding with Oskar’s grandparents, their diary entries and letters that help them come to terms with their own fractured lives, having lived through the bombing in Dresden.
Extremely Loud, Incredibly Close is wildly creative. It reminded me at the beginning of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. But Extremely Loud is much richer, and the characters’ lives in more need of repair. There is a parallel too, in the Twin Towers and the destruction of Dresden, two generations apart. This book is sad and wonderful, funny and despairing, and vibrantly alive. Highly recommended.
Smithy Ide is a 43 year old drunk – overweight, friendless, and when he can think, disgusted with himself. After the funeral of his parents who die in a car accident, Smithy finds an unopened letter to his parents from a mortuary in California. The letter says that the mortuary is holding the body of Smithy’s sister Bethany, an indigent whose identity they’ve been able to match with dental records. Still in a drunken fog, Smithy finds his old Raleigh bike in their garage, and sets off down the road, flat tires as all. Thus he unintentially sets off on a bike journey across the country and in the process comes to terms with his life and the loss of his beautiful sister who couldn’t escape the voices in her head.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is told in the first person by Christopher John Francis Boone, a 15 year old autistic boy, who sets off on a detective mission to discover who killed his neighbor’s dog. Christopher counts forward in prime numbers, can’t tolerate the colors yellow or brown, avoids strangers, is easily overwhelmed by noise or crowds, and always tells the truth.
We don’t often get a glimpse into the minds and worlds of people so different from ourselves. Author Mark Haddon takes us on a touching journey of how this boy’s world unravels and comes together again as he bumps up against the very real human failings of those closest to him. We feel his anguish and also the comfort he finds in his world of abstract problem solving. The book has several mind-stumping math problems, that Christopher delights in solving for us. One in particular, the Monty Hall problem, was really annoying. It’s the kind of problem that makes you sit down, take out a pen and paper and try to make sense of it. But you can’t. Or most people can’t. I think that is part of the interesting charm of this book. We the readers are as closed off to the world which Christopher inhabits, as he is to our world. As smart as I was in math, these problems confused me, made my brain hurt. As brilliant as Christopher is, it takes every ounce of his mental focus to take a simple subway ride.