Ten books you should read in february
George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo
Saunders, a masterful short story writer, takes a well-known tragedy in the life of one of the most honoured US presidents as the jumping-off point for his first novel. Abraham Lincoln's son Willie died of typhoid at the age of 11 in 1862. The president mourned as the Civil War raged, its outcome unclear, and with daily reports of rising casualties. Saunders uses the Tibetan Buddhist concept of 'the bardo' - that netherworld between life and death - to centre his mosaic of voices within a vision of grief captured at the cemetery where Willie is buried. Saunders delicately reveals a connection between a father's grief and Lincoln's strategic decision to "be brave and resolve the thing."
Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, The Girl from the Metropol Hotel
Petrushevskaya, a celebrated author in Russia, was born in 1938 across the street from the Kremlin in the Metropol Hotel, Moscow's "most famed residential building". While she was an infant, many members of her family of intellectuals were arrested and executed as "enemies of the people". This ushered in a childhood of severe deprivation, starvation and isolation. She eats from the neighbour's garbage and can't go to school in winter because she has no shoes. Yet Petrushevskaya narrates with joy swimming in the Volga, her grandmother's retelling of classics by Gogol from memory and watching Rossini's The Barber of Seville after climbing up the outside of the opera house.
Katie Kitamura, A Separation
The opening to Kitamura's third novel is pitch-perfect: "It began with a telephone call from Isabella. She wanted to know where Christopher was." Isabella's son Christopher and his wife, the narrator, have kept their six-month marital separation a secret. Now he has disappeared. And his lies and betrayals are coming undone. The wife flies to Athens to track him down, determined to ask for a divorce. A Separation is an atmospheric and emotionally sophisticated novel that reads like a taut Patricia Highsmith thriller.
Steve Erickson, Shadowbahn
A lorry driver driving through South Dakota in 2021 sees the World Trade Center's twin towers that fell two decades earlier looming up against the "forbidding Badlands horizon". Soon, a gawking crowd has gathered, drawn by the spectacle dubbed the "American Stonehenge", and this soon includes Parker and Zema, who take a side trip toward the Towers on their way to Michigan to visit their mother. In this audacious futuristic novel, Erickson takes on American myth and history, pushing our imaginative borders along ever more shadowy faultlines.
Glenn Frankel, High Noon
High Noon - the Gary Cooper Western whose title, since its release in 1952, has connoted "a moment of truth when a good man must confront evil" - was shot in 32 days during the era of the Hollywood Blacklist. Frankel, a Pulitzer Prize winner, describes the consequences of the blacklist on the film industry, including its effect on the film's writer, Carl Foreman, whose career was damaged because he refused to cooperate. Frankel makes the climate of suspicion and fear in Hollywood palpable.
Anders Rydell, The Book Thieves
Less well-known than the Nazi party's systematic looting of artworks from the countries they invaded and their attacks on literature through book burnings and persecution of Jewish and leftist writers was their secret plundering of libraries all over Europe. The Third Reich's goal was to capture the right to shape history by stealing, owning and twisting words stored in the libraries, archives, history and memories of Nazi enemies. Rydell, a Swedish editor and journalist, crosses Europe to investigate "the most extensive book theft in the history of the world" and reports on ongoing restitution efforts. Translated from the Swedish by Henning Koch, this is a chilling reminder of Hitler's twisted power.
Vivek Shanbhag, Ghachar Ghochar
The first of Shanbhag's eight novels to be translated into English follows one tight-knit family - the narrator, his parents, uncle, sister and wife - through an economic rise that causes surprising disruptions. After his father is forced into early retirement, "the whole family stuck together, like a single body across the tightrope of our circumstances." The uncle comes to the rescue, starting a small firm that buys spices in bulk from Kerala and sells them to local grocers. With his profits, the family moves from a small house in the teeming lower-middle-class area of Bangalore to a modern house on the other side of the city. But despite rising fortunes, their lives become increasingly knotted up. Shanbhag's concise novel gives "one story, many sides."
Stephen O'Shea, The Alps
O'Shea's enthralling summertime road trip through the Alps begins on the shores of Lake Geneva in Switzerland and ends in Italy, at the Adriatic port of Trieste. He reports on scores of daunting hairpin turns, awe-inspiring peaks and colourful fellow travelers, and muses on the Alpine locations of multiple James Bond films. He also adroitly sketches the historic spots he passes – the Swiss lakeside villa where Mary Shelley conceived Frankenstein in 1816, Mozart's birthplace, the Austrian salt mine where Nazis hid thousands of priceless art treasures. Breezy and informative, it a reminder of the ever-shifting attitudes toward mountains that have inspired poets and writers for centuries.
Christina Baker Kline, A Piece of the World
Kline's new novel is inspired by Christina Olson, the woman in Andrew Wyeth's best-known painting, Christina's World. Christina, who lives in the house built by her ancestors in Cushing in the US state of Maine, has been left off-kilter from a childhood illness. Her bones and joints deteriorate over the years, and her dreams of escape end when a four-year relationship with a Harvard student ends. One day Wyeth, who spends his summers nearby, asks to use their house as a studio to paint. He and Christina have an instant bond, and she, her brother Al and the house become constant themes in his work over the decades. "Sometimes a sanctuary, sometimes a prison, that house on the hill has always been my home," Baker writes in this beautifully rendered portrait of a woman's interior life.
Ethel Rohan, The Weight of Him
Big Billy Brennan, the vulnerable man at the heart of Ethel Rohan's first novel, is mired in grief - his teenage son has just committed suicide. He's also gone up to 180kg and can't seem to stop eating. Days before returning to work as a quality inspector at a toy factory in rural Ireland, he begins walking a few laps around the house. He grows determined to wage a public campaign to lose half of his weight, and raise funds for suicide prevention. His parents, wife and three remaining children are aghast. Despite setbacks, he sticks to his plan. In heart-rending passages, Rohan captures the ways in which parents blame each other and themselves for the loss of a child, and the courage it takes to change.