Just about everything in life is subjective, right? What someone might think is a pretty color or what weather is most enjoyable or even what makes a book worthy of winning a “prize,” are all more personal opinion than fact. Does that stop anyone from passing out an award -or being excited to win an award- of course not! It’s always nice to receive recognition for a job well done! Plus it makes for a super easy way to select a book for discussion if one of the key criteria is “award winning!” Now can you guess what genre we discussed? Right! It was literary fiction! Other criteria to look for would be a focus on characters, intellectually interesting and encourage a high degree of interaction between the book and the reader. Now are you ready to know what everyone choose to read?
Emma: Amandine: A Novel by Marlena de Blasi is the story of an illegitimate baby born to the daughter of Polish royalty. The countess wants the baby to disappear and tells her daughter the little girl died. In reality the unnamed child is dropped off at a convent in Montpellier, France. Grandma provides financially for her care. Solange is named caregiver who names the baby Amandine. Solange and the sisters at the convent adore Amandine, but the Abbess despises her, making life unbearable. Eventually Solange and Amandine leave the convent to reunite with Solange’s family, but a two day train trip turns into a several year hike across occupied France. Solange is killed by Nazis along the way and Amandine relies on the kindness of strangers to survive. Amandine is a remarkable story of survival, persistence, and unexpected love.
Julie: Hillary Jordan’s debut novel, Mudbound, won the Bellwether prize for fiction. Set in the post-WWII South, the story follows two families trying to eke out a living in the muddy Mississippi Delta as they are confronted with racism and the effects of war on those who fought.
Rosemary: Taste of Salt by Martha Southgate is a sensitive exploration of substance and sexual addictions. Josie Henderson has worked extremely hard to earn her position as a scientist for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. She is the only African-American researcher there. Daniel, her white husband, is also a scientist there. Because of her painful past in Cleveland, Josie has very little contact with her family back home. When Tick, Josie’s younger brother, finishes his second trip to rehab for alcoholism, he starts to slip almost immediately and flees to Josie for help. Josie’s carefully constructed world crashes down upon her when her new African-American lover spurns her, and Tick spirals out of control.
Carol: The Lake by Banana Yoshimoto is the story of two Japanese twenty-somethings, both damaged by loss. Chihiro, a mural artist, has just lost her mother after a long illness, and although grieving, she feels strangely liberated. From her new apartment in Toyko, she can see into the window of Nakajima, a student who is quiet, handsome and somehow different. Drawn to each other, they soon begin a romantic relationship. As Chihiro begins to fall in love with Nakajima, she wants to learn his terrible secrets—even as she knows that sometimes the truth can change how you view another person.
Ann: Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks. When she is twelve years old, headstrong Bethia Mayfield encounters a young boy her own age on one of her island ramblings. Bethia and Caleb form a bond and a friendship that will last a lifetime. The time is the 1660’s, and Bethia is the daughter of a Puritan minister on the island of Great Harbor (later named Martha’s Vineyard). Caleb is the son of a Wampanoag chieftain. Circumstances lead to Caleb living with the Mayfield family, where Bethia’s father undertakes the formal education of Caleb. Both Caleb and Bethia then move to Cambridge, and Caleb becomes the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College. He’s successfully crossed over into the English culture but at what price? This literary novel is based on the actual historical figure of Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk and is a treat for readers of both serious fiction and historical fiction alike.
Chris: Chango’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes by William Kennedy begins in Albany 1936, travels to Havana 1957 and ends in Albany 1968. Hang with journalist Daniel Quinn and you’ll hear Bing Crosby croon, befriend Hemingway, interview Castro, see Bobby Kennedy killed. And in the midst of the adventures, Quinn meets and falls passionately in love with the unpredictable, debutante revolutionary, Renata.
Janet: Nightwoods by Charles Frazier. Suddenly finding herself in the role of mother to her sister’s troubled twins, Dolores and Frank, Luce’s simple life at the base of an Appalachian Mountain is gone. Now everything is about the children. Luce must learn about her two young charges through trial and error. Unbeknownst to this fledgling family, Bud, Luce’s brother –in-law and the father of the twins has arrived in town to find her, the twins and the money he believes they have. Although found “not guilty” of his wife’s murder, Bud would like to give himself a fresh start by erasing the past even if it means killing his own children. Beautifully written, Nightwoods is and absorbing, suspenseful and satisfying read.
Megan: The Paris Wife by Paula McLain is the story of Hadley Richardson, the first wife of Ernest Hemingway. Following her mother’s death in 1920, a 29-year-old Hadley was ready for a change in her life. To that end, she traveled to Chicago to visit friends. During this visit she met a young man named Ernest Hemingway. Their attraction to each other was immediate and they were married less than a year later. In 1922 the newlyweds head to Paris, where they fall into a circle of famous artists and expatriates. Set against the backdrop of Paris during the Roaring 20’s, this intimate look at a young Hemingway and his first marriage is full of all the beauty, glamour, and heartbreak of that age. Fans of Hemingway, historical fiction, and epic romances will not want to miss this one.
Dori: The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje, a quiet but stirring novel narrated by Michael who, as a young boy, sailed aboard a ship from his home in Ceylon to England in the 1950’s. Traveling alone, Michael is seated, along with a motley crew of dinner companions, at the “Cat’s Table”, the table farthest from the prestigious “Captain’s Table”. There, he meets two other boys and they explore the wondrous ship and its fascinating passengers. As he tells his story, Michael flashes between past and present, looking back on his life changing adventure while exploring he and his friends’ responses to the new world they then grow up in. This is a beautifully written, moving novel about journeys: to a new country and to adulthood.
Steve: After Dark, by Haruki Murakami, is a short novel that mixes some very odd characters and situations together with both wonderful success and disappointing failure. The story centers around trombone player Takahashi and an old acquaintance he runs into, 19 year old Mari, at an all-night Denny’s. There is also a backstory about her gorgeous sister Eri, who announces one day that she is going to sleep, and proceeds to do just that, for two months! We find that she is in some weird dreamlike world and might be in danger from an ambiguous bad guy who seems to watch over her. There is also a cast of characters from a “love hotel” who enter the picture after a Chinese prostitute is beaten. The dialogue between Mari and Takahashi is engaging, and they are surprisingly well developed for such a short work (191 pages). There is a nice sense of mystery surrounding a businessman, Shirakawa, who beat the prostitute. We find out through late night phone calls that he has a loving wife and kids. Throw in a gang that may be out for vengeance against Shirakawa, and a cell phone that makes its way through many of the characters hands, and you have some intriguing scenarios. Unfortunately the story simply ends with no resolution, or sense of what is real and not real for that matter. In a nutshell, imaginative, but not for anyone looking for an ending or sense of satisfaction.
Stacey: When She Woke by Hiliary Jordan is the best kind of literary fiction you could hope to read, combining equal parts thought-provoking, discussable issues and edge-of-your-seat action! In the near future, The United States of America has become a nation in which the Government dictates both moral and legal issues. Hannah is a young woman who’s been chromed, or had her skin chemically altered to red, indicating she’s guilty of murder. Hannah had an abortion. Now she’s left without any real support system, either personal or governmental, and her life is at risk whenever she’s in public. What kind of life can Hannah live, if she lives at all?
The next time we get together we’ll be discussing … Holiday Stories! Are you ready for some holly jolly happenings? Me too!