Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar 368 pages

This work reads like a memoir, but Akhtar insists it’s a novel. Homeland Elegies contains eight vignettes, each different in many ways, but all touching directly or indirectly on America’s consumerism and what it often feels like to be a Muslim here. The main character and narrator is named Ayad Akhtar, and also like the author, he is born in New York, has parents who are Muslims from Pakistan, and is a relatively famous playwright. Does Akhtar want his readers to have a difficult time distinguishing between reality and fiction? I think so.

If you are only comfortable reading a novel with a straightforward, chronological plot, this book is not for you. However, if you appreciate an unorthodox work of fiction with outstanding writing that puts its reader in the shoes of a Muslim living in this country for the past nineteen years, read Homeland Elegies.

Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar 368 pages

The Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante

With very few books coming out that interested me, I felt it was about time to read Ferrante’s much-loved quartet. The main characters are Lila and Lenu, born and raised in an area of Naples seething with hate, abuse and violence. The four novels follow these best friends through their schooling, marriages, affairs and children. Lila is beautiful and intelligent but leaves school in 5th grade and remains in the neighborhood. Lenu, the narrator of the four novels, goes to college (the only one in the neighborhood who does), becomes a successful author and although she travels extensively and lives in other Italian cities, she is often drawn back to Naples.

After I read the first book, I didn’t understand what all the hoopla was about. However, about a third of the way into book #2, I was hooked. I found the characters and their culture engrossing and fascinating. If you are willing to devote a lot of time, The Neapolitan Novels are well worth it.

The Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante

Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi 269 pages

Gifty is a medical student at Stanford working with mice and researching how the brain, addiction and depression are related. Her parents are from Ghana but immigrated to Huntsville, Alabama before Gifty was born. In many ways she raised herself, but her mother and older brother, Nana, play very significant roles in her life. Her mother was a deeply religious person, and Gifty must figure out how religion and science can co-exist in her life.

Transcendent Kingdom is Yaa Gyasi’s second novel. It is quite different from her first, Homegoing, and for me not quite as enjoyable. Being neither a “science” or a religious person, some of her descriptions had little or no effect on me.

Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi 269 pages

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson 387 pages

Although written differently than her first book, The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson once again gives her readers subtle suggestions and heart breaking, little known examples.  She describes three caste systems in depth, Nazi Germany, India and The United States, and vividly describes how these castes destroy humanity.  In a compelling way, Wilkerson illustrates why there are castes, what is wrong with them and the way castes can be eliminated.  She looks at these three castes historically, psychologically, sociologically, anthropologically and politically.

Caste couldn’t have been published at a better time in our country’s history.  It is an important read for anyone who cares about what is happening in The United States today.

 

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson 387 pages

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell 305 pages

Hamnet is the only son of William and Agnes Shakespeare.  He died at the age of eleven for the plague.  Although his name is the title of O’Farrell’s novel, the central character is Agnes.  She was three months pregnant with her first child when she married Shakespeare and went to live at his parents’ home in Stratford.  Hamnet is the story of Agnes and her family.  It is a tale of love, marriage, family and grief.

Hamnet is a beautifully written, vividly described novel with empathetic, complex characters.  It is a masterfully done work of historical fiction.

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell 305 pages

Memorial Drive by Natasha Trethewey 224 pages

Natasha Trethewey was the 19th poet laureate of The United States, and much of her memoir is poetic, although written in prose.  Trethewey’s mother was a Black women from Mississippi and her father was a White Canadian.  They met on a college campus, married, had one daughter and then divorced when the author was young.  Her mother then met and married an abusive, mentally ill man who threatened the whole family and eventually murdered Natasha’s mother.

For me, Memorial Drive was not so much a memoir but rather a means for the author to come to terms with her mother’s horrific death.  While very well-written, I felt Memorial Drive was a cathartic experience for Trethewey, and I was merely tagging along.

Memorial Drive by Natasha Trethewey 224 pages

Valentine by Elizabeth Wetmore 320 pages

Valentine is the story of the violent rape of fifteen year old Glory on Valentine’s Day in Odessa, Texas in the late 70’s and five other women who were affected by this brutal attack.  Mary Rose is the woman whose home Glory ran to after the rape.  Corinne is a liberal thinker, a recent widow and a heavy drinker.  Debra Ann  is a young girl whose mother has deserted her, and she is desperately searching for a mother figure and a friend.  Karla is seventeen years old, has a four month old child and dreams of leaving Odessa.

Valentine is an all-around terrific read.  It has wonderfully drawn characters and the writing is so good, I could almost feel the hot Texas sun and the red-brown dust.  Because there are only two somewhat admirable men in the novel, women might enjoy reading Valentine more than men.

Valentine by Elizabeth Wetmore 320 pages

Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell 567 pages

Utopia Avenue is the name of an English band formed in 1967.  Elf Holloway, short for Elizabeth, is a folk singer and plays the organ, keyboard and piano.  Dean Moss plays bass and is the most uncontrollable member of the foursome.  Jasper de Zoet( a last name from another Mitchell novel), plays guitar, is Dutch and schizophrenic.  And Giff Gifford is their fabulous drummer.  Each member contributes ideas, music and lyrics.  While describing the formation of the band and their successes and disappointments, Mitchell also delves deeply into each individual character.

With the exception of a way out scene where Jasper’s schizophrenia is “cured,” I thoroughly enjoyed Utopia Avenue.  David Mitchell brought back the musical scene of the late 60’s while telling a fine story.

Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell 567 pages

Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray. 655 pages

Since there are few new books coming out this summer, and I have more time to read than usual, I made sure that my summer classic would be a long, slow read.  I chose Vanity Fair and am I glad I did.  It is historic, at times serious, at other times tongue-in-cheek with wonderfully drawn characters and an engrossing plot.  Vanity Fair is delightful.

Basically, it is the tale of two very different women who attend school together in the early 1800’s and the people they encounter after they graduate.  Amelia Sedley is kind to all, trusting and loyal.  Becky Sharp is a conniving liar who will do anything to get ahead.  Vanity Fair describes the plights of these two young women and the many men and women they meet.

Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray. 655 pages

Friends and Strangers by J. Courtney Sullivan 303 pages

Elizabeth has moved to a small town for her husband’s dream job.  She is a first time mother who has left her beloved Brooklyn and her best friend, Nomi.  Elizabeth needs a babysitter for her infant son, so she can start writing her third book.  She hires Sam, a college senior who is somewhat naive, but a kind, caring girl.  Very quickly Elizabeth and Sam become friends, and Elizabeth makes confessions to Sam that the babysitter is unable to handle.

If you have enjoyed other novels by Courtney Sullivan, you will like Friends and Strangers.  Although at times predictable, it’s an easy read with well-described major and minor characters.

Friends and Strangers by J. Courtney Sullivan 303 pages