It’s been months since I blanketed readers with lists of obscure and bestselling books of interest.
Consider these for a start:
The best novel set in the civil rights era that I have read (and I’ve read as many as I can get my hands on) is Magic Time by Doug Marlette (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006). I was crushed to discover that the author has since passed away. Marlette wrote a historically accurate novel with nearly perfect pitch. Protagonist Carter Ransom, a newspaper columnist back home in the deep South after years away, is as wounded and honorable as the homeland he revisits.
Burial for a King : Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral and the week that transformed Atlanta and rocked the nation, by Rebecca Burns (Scribner, 2011) is a surprise: Fresh reporting and perspective on a tragedy that is one of the most written-about events in American history. By focusing tightly on the week of King’s funeral, and capturing moments of the extraordinary strength of Coretta Scott King, Burns adds a valuable work to the canon.
With a selfish, spirited heroine of the Scarlett O’Hara variety, The Linen Queen, by Patricia Falvey (Center Street, 2011) is set in a Northern Ireland village during World War II. There’s a love triangle at the center of this good novel, but the small domestic details of the life of a small-village millworker is the best stuff.
Reading Away, by Amy Bloom (Random House, 2007) made me realize how many more picaresque novels are about men versus women. And what a shame that is. Bloom is a fabulous writer and her heroine, Lillian Leyb, is brave, foolish and memorable as she arrives in America in 1924. When Lillian learns the infant daughter she left for dead after a pogrom is alive, she vows to return to Russia and find the child. The characters who help and hinder her are brilliantly drawn. Bloom employs a very finely wrought back-and-forth-in-time style that every fiction writer should study.
The Surrendered by Chang-rae Lee (Riverhead Books, 2010) has a Sophie’s Choice quality–a painful war story with a fierce female survivor at its center; unfolding events from which we cannot avert our eyes, and which stay lodged in the brain for weeks. Set first in the Korean War era, it seems especially poignant to read of such spoils of war today, with US military involvement on more than one front. Chang-rae Lee is already established as a powerhouse and this book keeps that reputation intact.
If you, like me, missed the coda to Armisted Maupin’s wonderful Tales of the City characters, don’t wait any longer. Go get Michael Tolliver Lives, (HarperCollins, 2007) and remember what it was that made the Maupin novels so engrossing the first time around. Almost 20 years after Maupin brought gay, lesbian and transgender characters to the mainstream, he revisits the veterans of those distant days. This isn’t just a book for nostalgic old farts; if the whole series is new to you, start at the beginning with Tales of the City.
(Note: The links to these books are from Powell’s, Portland’s famous independent bookstore, arguably the best in the country. Sometimes a link disappears when the particular copy I’ve bookmarked is a used one that has been sold. If you get a “not found” message, simply search for the title again on the Powell’s home page. They never run out of books.)