A tip about a wonderful book translated from Dutch and brilliantly reviewed by both The Guardian and The New York Times. War and Turpentine, written by the award-winning Flemish poet and author, Stefan Hertmans, is a distillation of the musings of Hertmans’ grandfather on World War I. As Neel Mukherjee wrote in his review: ‘War and Turpentine is the astonishing result of Hertmans’ reckoning with his grandfather’s diaries. It is a book that lies at the crossroads of novel, biography, autobiography and history, with inset essays, meditations, pictures. It seems to be aching to be called “Sebaldian”, and earns the epithet glowingly.’
At Townie Books in Crested Butte, Colorado, I picked up Radio Girls by Sarah-Jan Stratford, a sparkling novel which traces the history of women working at the BBC in its early 1920s broadcasting years. The atmosphere at the new company was electrifying – new technology, the chance to reach into the living rooms of people all over Great Britain, and the dynamism of Hilda Matheson, Director of the popular Talks programmes, who dreamed of expanding the knowledge base of all layers of British society. This is historical fiction at its best, giving us a believable picture of the new world after the end of the Great War. An appealing and thoroughly enjoyable book!
Bright, Precious Days by Jay McInerney is the third in a Manhattan psychological trilogy, tracing the ups and downs of the lives of Corinne and Russell Calloway. Now in their 50s, the couple struggle with mid-life ennui and uncertain financial futures in a warm, well-drawn portrait of the times. The book can be read alone.
Young Adult books
I ran across a book from 2012 recently and was impressed by its treatment of teen issues of identity and sexuality. Written by Benjamin Alire Sáenz (and also issued as an audiobook read by Lin-Manuel Miranda), Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe has received an array of awards. It recounts the summer of two loners – Aristotle, an angry sixteen year old with a brother in prison and Dante, a self-assured teen with his own way of looking at the world. Beautifully written from the perspective of the non-communicative Ari, it portrays the boys’ discovery of important truths about themselves and the kind of people they want to be.
My top young adult book of 2015 was All The Bright Places by Jennifer Niven. This incredibly talented author dealt in an uplifting (!) manner with the issue of teen suicide. In her latest novel, Holding Up the Universe, she tackles how teens attempt to fit in to their peer groups. Jack, with his swagger and nonchalance, is a master of disguising the fact that he cannot recognize faces. Libby, in the face of vicious sneers about her overweight, is determined to move beyond what people think because she wants to be ‘the girl who can do anything’. These two unforgettable characters take on their high school community and learn to see each other for who they are. A strong and poignant book!