I am happy to report that we have selected books for the first quarter of 2010. We’re trying a theme this year: family sagas. Nice and broad, but a thread to tie all the books together. Here are the selections so far:
January: A Widow for One Year by John Irving: Marion Cole, a thirty-nine-year-old woman — and a faithful wife for twenty-two years — has an affair with a sixteen-year-old boy; she then leaves her philandering husband. And also abandons her four-year-old daughter, Ruth. By the age of thirty-six, Ruth Cole has become an internationally acclaimed novelist. But she is an angry, impulsive, often self-contradictory, unmarried woman whose personal life is not nearly as successful as her literary career, and she distrusts her judgement in men, for good reason. Five years later, at forty-one, Ruth Cole is a widow and a mother. Ruth’s child is the same age Ruth was when her mother left her. Now Ruth is about to fall in love for the first time. A Widow for One Year is a multilayered love story of astonishing emotional force. Both richly comic and erotic, it is also a brilliant novel about the passage of time and the relentlessness of grief.
February: Family by Pa Chin: An essential work for anyone interested in the society and history of modern China! The first half of the twentieth century was a period of great turmoil in China. Family, one of the most popular Chinese novels of that time, vividly reflects that turmoil and serves as a basis for understanding what followed. Written in 1931, Family has been compared to Dream of the Red Chamber for its superb portrayal of the family life and society of its time. Drawn largely from Pa Chin’s own experience, Family is the story of the Kao family compound, consisting of four generations plus servants. It is essentially a picture of the conflict between old China and the new tide rising to destroy it, as manifested in the daily lives of the Kao family, and particularly the three young Kao brothers. Here we see situations that, unique as they are to the time and place of this novel, recall many circumstances of today’s world: the conflict between generations and classes, ill-fated love affairs, students’ political activities, and the struggle for the liberation of women. The complex passions aroused in Family and in the reader are an indication of the universality of human experience. This novel illustrates the effectiveness of fiction as a vehicle for translating the experience of one culture to another very different one.
March: The Kids are All Right by Diana, Amanda, Liz and Dan Welch: “Perfect is boring.”
Well, 1983 certainly wasn’t boring for the Welch family. Somehow, between their handsome father’s mysterious death, their glamorous soap-opera-star mother’s cancer diagnosis, and a phalanx of lawyers intent on bankruptcy proceedings, the four Welch siblings managed to handle each new heartbreaking misfortune in the same way they dealt with the unexpected arrival of the forgotten-about Chilean exchange student–together. All that changed with the death of their mother. While nineteen-year-old Amanda was legally on her own, the three younger siblings–Liz, sixteen; Dan, fourteen; and Diana, eight–were each dispatched to a different set of family friends. Quick-witted and sharp-tongued, Amanda headed for college in New York City and immersed herself in an ’80s world of alternative music and drugs. Liz, living with the couple for whom she babysat, followed in Amanda’s footsteps until high school graduation when she took a job in Norway as a nanny. Mischievous, rebellious Dan, bounced from guardian to boarding school and back again, getting deeper into trouble and drugs. And Diana, the red-haired baby of the family, was given a new life and identity and told to forget her past. But Diana’s siblings refused to forget her–or let her go. Told in the alternating voices of the four siblings, their poignant, harrowing story of unbreakable bonds unfolds with ferocious emotion. Despite the Welch children’s wrenching loss and subsequent separation, they retained the resilience and humor that both their mother and father endowed them with–growing up as lost souls, takingdisastrous turns along the way, but eventually coming out right side up. The kids are not only all right; they’re back together.
April: Grace by Richard Paul Evans: She was my first kiss. My first love. She was a little match girl who could see the future in the flame of a candle. She was a runaway who taught me more about life than anyone has before or since. And when she was gone my innocence left with her. As I begin to write, a part of me feels as if I am awakening something best left dead and buried, or at least buried. We can bury the past, but it never really dies. The experience of that winter has grown on my soul like ivy climbing the outside of a home, growing until it begins to tear and tug at the brick and mortar. I pray I can still get the story right. My memory, like my eyesight, has waned with age. Still, there are things that become clearer to me as I grow older. This much I know: too many things were kept secret in those days. Things that never should have been hidden. And things that should have.
May: The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski A riveting family saga, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle explores the deep and ancient alliance between humans and dogs, and the power of fate through one boy’s epic journey into the wild. Born mute, speaking only in sign, Edgar Sawtelle leads an idyllic life with his parents on their farm in remote northern Wisconsin. For generations, the Sawtelles have raised and trained a fictional breed of dog whose thoughtful companionship is epitomized by Almondine, Edgar’s lifelong companion. But with the unexpected return of Claude, Edgar’s uncle, turmoil consumes the Sawtelle’s once-peaceful home. When Edgar’s father dies suddenly, Claude insinuates himself into the life of the farm – and into Edgar’s mother’s affections. Grief-stricken and bewildered, Edgar tries to prove Claude played a role in his father’s death, but his plan backfires, spectacularly. Edgar flees into the vast wilderness lying beyond the farm. He comes of age in the wild, fighting for his survival and that of the three yearling dogs who follow him. But his need to face his father’s murderer, and his devotion to the Sawtelle dogs, turn Edgar ever homeward. Wroblewski is a master storyteller, and his breathtaking scenes – the elemental north woods, the sweep of seasons, an iconic American barn, a ghost made of falling rain – create a family saga that is at once a brilliantly inventive retelling of Hamlet, an exploration of the limits of language, and a compulsively readable modern classic.