Each week I read between 3-6 books. I don’t have time to write meaningful reviews of each, but I also don’t want to let that reading mojo go neglected. Who knows which recommendation of mine might save you a couple of dozen dollars, or encourage you to spend them? Hence this feature, “Buy, Borrow, Bypass,” in which I talk about my previous week’s reading and which books fit into which categories. They won’t always do so neatly, either!
City of Women by David R. Gillham (Amy Einhorn/Putnam): I am still kicking myself for not meeting Gilham during BEA, although since I hadn’t yet read his beautiful, sorrowful account of wartime Berlin, I wouldn’t have been able then to tell him what I can now share with you: Nazi wife Sigrid Schroder’s views of constancy, betrayal and loss will challenge your preconceptions about love, war and identity. I could not put this one down and wish I were teaching a literature class just so I could design a syllabus around alternative views of World War II like this novel.
The Headmaster’s Wager by Vincent Lam (Hogarth): After reading Lam’s story collection, Bloodletting and Other Miraculous Cures, in 2008, I longed for a novel from this author, a Canadian of Vietnamese descent who is an ER doctor in Toronto. Now I understand why it took him a few years; Wager is a tale of sweeping change that centers on a headmaster of Chinese descent in 1960s Saigon. Lam’s short-fiction gift for succinct and revelatory detail is here combined with a restrained approach towards history’s tides that reminded me of a young Shusaku Endo.
The St. Zita Society by Ruth Rendell (Scribner): Ruth Rendell rarely sets a foot wrong, so how to explain this odd mushy-peas-and-mash of a novel after last year’s wondrous The Vault? Everything from the fictional London street in which all of the action takes place to the sketchily drawn characters to the strange, vague whodunnit (whocaresif?) reeks of mothballs, even when flashes of Rendellian genius shine through, especially in some of the younger, female characters. Perhaps in switching U.S. publishers Dame Rendell released a manuscript too soon–and perhaps her next one will be much better.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple (Little, Brown): Loads of places are telling you, right now, that this is THE Seattle novel of the year blah blah blah… Listen, I’ve visited Seattle a couple of times and I love it and I think Semple skewers a few of that city’s most cherished icons quite well–but my point is, you will enjoy this deeply warm-hearted novel even if you have never heard of the Pacific Northwest. It’s ultimately about how a mother and teenaged daughter reconnect during a difficult year, and it’s one that many book groups will look at for their calendars.
VERDICT: Borrow–or buy, so you can lend to a friend