Put away the beach towels, friends — it’s time for pumpkin everything! Today’s post features five books (plus a few bonus picks!) you might enjoy as we head toward the season of golden leaves, ghostly nights and giving thanks.
My top pick for fall – a haunting read – is Barracoon: The Story of the Last ‘Black Cargo,’ by Zora Neale Hurston (Their Eyes Were Watching God). In 1927, Hurston spent three months interviewing Cudjo Lewis at his home in Alabama. Lewis, at age eighty-six, was the oldest known survivor of the slave trade. He’d been captured by a competing tribe in West Africa in 1859 and arrived in Alabama by way of the slave ship Clotilde that year. In the decades following the Civil War, he raised a family and became a leader in the community of free blacks. Hurston is a gentle but persistent interviewer; Lewis can be both forthcoming and elusive. He is sometimes at peace with his past and sometimes less so. Hurston’s inquisitive interest in his story pulls you in, and his own voice has a vibrancy, sorrow, yearning and wisdom that you will not soon forget. Hurston has recorded his voice in its own rhythms and pronunciation, which helps you feel even more strongly the distance between Lewis’s life and our own in the 21st century.
Lisa Patton, in her new novel Rush, doesn’t ignore the continued complications of race in our society. Specifically, she’s attuned to race in the deep South. Things don’t get any more Southern than Rush at Ole Miss. You’ve got girls in dorms with sorority dreams and moms with sorority dreams for their daughters. You’ve also got African-American housekeepers and cooks who take care of these girls in profound ways and have dreams of their own. Patton writes in the first person voice of Miss Pearl, the African-American housekeeper; Wilda Woodcock, the mom recently recruited to be Rush chair; and Cali, a girl with “no pedigree” who dreams of being governor of Mississippi as well as a sorority girl at Ole Miss. Are all the voices in Patton’s novel equally believable? Does she “get” Rush? These questions might spark lively conversation at your book club. Patton writes compassionately and empathetically about most characters, but it’s also fun to have that one mom to hate.
Fall is the season for Rush, and it always seems to be the best season for memoir as well. The long, dark nights encourage introspection and reflection. My top pick for memoir this fall is Nine Continents: A Memoir In and Out of China, by Xiaolu Guo. Xiaolu (to Western ears, “Shaow-lu”) was born in 1973 while her father was imprisoned in a hard labor camp. Her mother gave her away to a peasant couple in a mountain village since she could not care for the baby in addition to the couple’s young son. After two years, the couple found the baby’s paternal grandparents and gave the small, sickly child back. Xiaolu was raised in dire poverty by her grandparents – her grandfather deeply embittered, her grandmother abused and marginalized yet with a heart full of love for her granddaughter. Some of the most moving parts of this memoir are Xiaolu’s memories of her grandmother, with her bound feet, praying to Guanyin, the goddess of mercy. Xiaolu’s descriptions of hunger – and what it will drive a child to – are also memorable. Xiaolu’s parents retrieved her when she was seven years old, but the move did not prove to be a happy reunion in many ways. The memoir recounts Xiaolu’s long journey from fishing village to Beijing to London – and her trip, finally, back home.
Another compelling new memoir on bookshelves now is A Marriage in Dog Years, by Nancy Balbirer. You don’t have to be a dog lover to love this book, though it helps. You probably do need to be married — or formerly married. Balbirer writes with raw emotion and humor about the terrible year when her dog was dying and her marriage was suffering as well. Her beagle, Ira, lives much longer than he should. Her marriage? I won’t give it away. Chapters are short and conversational with titles like “Love Saves the Day,” “My Doggy, My Self,” and “When Dinosaurs Die” (if you’re a mom, you’re familiar with the Dinosaur books!). Born in New York to Jewish parents, an actress and comic writer by trade, Balbirer is not constrained by Southern expectations. She’s more likely to go to a fortune teller than to church or brunch. But the conflicts and anxieties she struggles with will be familiar — and her journey is both excruciating and encouraging. Balbirer has written for Paul Shaffer on Saturday Night Live, and you can tell: there’s always a comic touch amidst the pain. Give this to your friend who’s trying to figure out where she is in her marriage.
The book I’m reading right now? Written by one of my favorite authors, it promises to be a big hit of the season: Lake Success, by Gary Shteyngart. Shteyngart’s sharp, funny novel follows Barry Cohen – hedge fund manager – as he runs away from his million dollar life. He and his smart, beautiful wife Seema seem to have it all, but their autistic young son throws a wrench into all of their plans and dreams. In a drunken breakdown, Cohen boards a Greyhound bus to find his college sweetheart and possibly abandon everything he’s left behind. Seema might not mind, given the smoking hot novelist who lives in their building. Barry, are you sure you’re doing the right thing? Seema, are you? I’m about a third of a way into this novel and can’t put it down … sorry, friends, this novel – and my pumpkin spice latte – are calling!
Need something light, kind, gentle? Try Meet Me at the Museum, by Anne Youngson. In this epistolary novel, Mrs. Tina Hopgood and Mr. Anders Larsen exchange letters about their mutual interest in the prehistoric “Tollund Man.” She’s a farmer’s wife in England, he’s a widowed curator at a Danish museum. How much could they possibly have in common? “Warm-hearted, clear-minded and unexpectedly spellbinding, Meet Me at the Museum is a novel to savor,” writes Annie Barrows, author of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society. With your cup of tea and a scone! This book is not completely believable, but we didn’t buy it for that.
In the mood for something seriously racy and laugh out loud funny? Try Penelope Lemon: Game On!, by Inman Majors. Penelope Lemon is recently divorced, down on her luck, living with her mom and raising a son the other kids on the bus call “Fart Boy.” A naked photo of her has surfaced on the internet. Does all this bring her down? Hell yes, as a matter of fact, it does. But you can’t keep a good woman down. Penelope Lemon has heat and heart. Full disclosure – it crosses the line from racy to raunchy in many places. This is not a book to give your mother.
Looking for love in all the wrong places? Try The Incendiaries, by R.O. Kwon. Think: college relationships. Faith – and the loss of it. A young woman, with conflicting desires, torn between two men. Will the world end in flames? Laura van den Berg calls it a “profound, intricate exploration of how grief and lost faith and the vulnerable storm of youth can drive people to irrevocable extremes …”.
Finally — if you love hardcore literary fiction — DO NOT MISS the final installment in Rachel Cusk’s trilogy of novels about a woman writer, Kudos. Kudos continues in the vein of the prior two books, with the narrator reporting her life through a series of conversations. This time, she’s at a writer’s conference. Nothing much happens in the earlier two novels, and even less happens in this one. How does Cusk get away with this? Why do I want to keep reading? I don’t know. Maybe because of this: we’re all walking around betraying ourselves all the time – or at least revealing a lot more than we intended. Cusk listens.
For additional reading recommendations and miscellaneous musings by Jennifer Puryear, please check in at BaconOnTheBookshelf.com.
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