Literary Fiction

The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck

One of those classics that eluded me through high school and college English classes, The Good Earth surfaced for me recently as I read a favorable review of a new biography of Buck [Pearl Buck in China: Journey to The Good Earth by Hilary Spurling]. I was reminded that TGE had been awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1932 and Buck the Nobel Prize for literature in 1938. Maybe I should see if the library still has a copy... Yes! Many copies, many formats. People are still reading it, these many years later.  The CRRL paperback that came my way was identified as an Oprah's Book Club selection in 2004.

TGE tells the story of peasant farmer Wang Lung, his lifelong relationship with the land and the family he creates with his wife O-Lan. Buck makes these simple people the face of a China that is in the beginning throes of the political upheaval that would transform centuries-old cultural and societal norms over the course of the 20th century. At the outset we follow Wang Lung as he sets out to buy his wife, a slave in the house of Hwang; O-Lan is considered a good buy since she is too ugly to have been defiled by the rich men in the big house. The book is suffused with irony; the author draws her characters, paints the world for the reader as seen through their eyes. The devastating effect of years of flood and famine on the Wang Lungs across rural China is remarkably drawn without fanfare or hyperbole. Their brutal world where begging, infanticide, and mysogeny are unquestioned is filled with stoic, illiterate, patient people. In the end, the land enriches Wang Lung, and his epic rags to riches journey is a page turner.

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho, is one of those simple, spiritual tales that captures modern-day imaginations and becomes a best-seller. As I read it on the beach, I felt the brush of Jonathan Livingston Seagull’s wings—or perhaps those were the wings of the laughing gull trying to steal my son’s peanut butter sandwich.

In this extended fable, the teenage shepherd Santiago has chosen his free and lonely life over a more respectable one that would have bound him tightly to his community and family. Content as he is with the wisdom he gained while wandering the Spanish hills, he is nonetheless being drawn to change his path. The dark-eyed daughter of a prosperous merchant awaits his marriage proposal, but Santiago’s prophetic dream in an abandoned and ruined church leads him further away from his homeland than he ever imagined.

Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold

"Now we see in a glass dimly, but then face to face."

Long before C.S. Lewis created the land of Narnia and wrote his many books exploring Christian faith, he was fascinated with Greek mythology. Till We Have Faces is Lewis’ reworked story of the Cupid and Psyche myth, which has come down to us in modern times as Beauty and the Beast. It was a story he began as an undergraduate and was to become his favorite work when he completed it years later.

The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

With one voice, the critics have proclaimed Tom Rachman's debut novel, The Imperfectionists, a zinger. Christopher Buckley, in his cover piece in the New York Times Book Review (April 29, 2010) says it was "so good I had to read it twice simply to figure out how [he] pulled it off."

The book's story is essentially the 50-year history of an unnamed small English-language daily newspaper published in Rome. True to where the world of print journalism is headed, there is not a happy ending. The cast of characters --- the journalists, writers, publishers staffing the paper during its final days --- is paraded out in discreet chapters that could work as stand-alone short stories but that are neatly interwoven under often satiric banner headlines emblematic of each subject. (Obit writer Arthur Gopal's chapter heading is "World's Oldest Liar Dies at 126"). The portraits are sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, frequently very sad, often ironic and always tightly constructed with description and dialog that bring each character to life. The arc of the newspaper's life is chronicled in chapters separating the staff portraits, functioning as a common backdrop against which the journalists' individual stories are acted out. Each of the stories and, indeed, the overarching tracing of the newspaper's demise touches in some way on death, loss, or grieving for happier days. Each of the staffers' stories is told in the present tense, tellingly  juxtaposed against the newspaper sections - - past tense, history.

The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris

Tim Farnsworth is a successful lawyer, middle-aged but still good-looking, enjoying his beautiful house, his teenaged daughter and frequent trips abroad with his lovely wife Jane, when he discovers that while he has taken his easy life for granted, everything has changed.  "The Unnamed" opens with the second recurrence of his puzzling disease, an unbearable compulsion to start walking and not stop for hours.

The first time this happened, he and his wife consulted doctors around the world in search of “The One Guy” who understood his unique condition.  Though they tried everything, even strapping Tim to a hospital bed for weeks at a time, nothing worked.  Then one day, for no reason he could discern, he just stopped walking, and life seemed to be back to normal. Now, years later, it’s started again.

The Weight of Water, by Anita Shreve

Anita Shreve's The Weight of Water has been around for a while [1997], but I'd never read it until a friend suggested that maybe I could find it in the public library, and that it would be the perfect literary accompaniment to a summer vacation planned around Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and the nearby coast of Maine.  How right she was. 

Shreve structures a page-turner around a murder that occured on Appledore Island, one of the tiny rocky components of the Isles of Shoals, located in the Atlantic less than ten miles out from Portsmouth.  The murder occurred in 1873, scandalized and horrified at the time, and resulted in the last hanging in the state of Maine.

The novel is a first-person narrative set in our own time, the protagonist a photographer on assignment to capture images of the island to accompany a magazine article about the murder. As she explores the dramatically isolated harsh and rocky terrain where the crime occurred, the narrator's artistic eye captures and renders surface detail and her mind's eye envisions what life must have been like for the individuals inhabiting that confined space.