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Recommended Reading

Posted on 09 September 2010 by Barbara Beckwith (3)

Here are a dozen fiction and non-fiction books that my husband Jon and I read this summer and want to share. We read most of them during two Reading Weekends, when we go away to simply read. Here’s what we read in a sweet little B & B called Acorn’s Hope Great Barrington (MA).  

My 4 best books:

Try to Remember, by Iris Gomez (Grand Central Publishing/Hachette Book Group, 2010). This novel “grabbed” me from the very beginning: I read it straight through. The main character is a Columbian immigrant girl whose father loses jobs, obsessively composes demand letters and forces his daughter to type them, has violent and paranoid rages. The girl’s mother, won’t admit the problem or let the kids talk about it outside immediate family, but resorts to giving the father Dramamine, calling it vitamins, to calm him down. Meanwhile, the mother and kids take jobs that they hide from the “proud” father so they won’t lose their home. The author is an immigration lawyer and must be aware of all the family problems that immigrants may hide from agencies that are supposed to help them.

Levittown: Two Families, One Tycoon, and the Fight for Civil Rights in America’s Legendary Suburb, by David Kushner, (Walker, 2009). This non-fiction book describes how the Levitt brothers built housing “affordable for all” and yet excluded Black families, proclaiming, “I’m not prejudiced: I couldn’t be – I’m Jewish – but I can’t accept blacks because I couldn’t get white customers.” One Jewish (and Communist) family does help the first Black family buy into the whites-only suburban development, and endure the violence and  harassment that followed, fomented by racist neighbors and the KKK. I can would not deign to call myself an “anti-racist activist” after seeing what these two determined, principled and ground-breaking families went through.

Persian Girls by Nahid Rachlin (Tarcher/Penguin, 2006). A memoir by an Iranian woman who as an infant was given to her aunt, who’d had no children because of her husband’s infertility, which couldn’t be acknowledged — she was made to blame. After 9 years, Nahid’s father grabs her to take her back to “real” mother (who’d been married at 9, bore 10 kids, two of whom had died, and didn’t want or like Nahid. As a teen, Nahid read American and European books that could get family arrested; she also resisted marriage, begging her father to let her study in America. He finally relents, and she goes to the U.S., where she attends a St. Louis “finishing school” college, but suffers from knowing little English and making few friends. Her father expects her to return to Iran to marry but she sends him a letter, saying she’s staying to go to graduate school. She supports herself, barely, with odd jobs and a scholarship, manages to become writer, and marries a Jewish man, Back home, her sisters have unhappy marriages and give up their passions for theater, true love, or children. By middle age, Nahid accepts her family, in part because of secrets she discovers about her mother, and herself.

To Awake My Afflicted Brethren: David Walker and the Problem of Antebellum Slave Resistance, by Peter P. Hinks (Pennsylvania State, 1997/2000). A dense history/biography of a fascinating man: a free Black man who galvanized resistance to slavery with a 1829 tract calling on free and enslaved Blacks to demand an immediate end to slavery. He distributed his Appeal in the South via Black seamen, and deeply influenced Douglass, Garrison, and Maria Stewart. But he’s been “disappeared” from history. A Community Change Inc committee of Boston legislators and historians is trying to bring him back into prominence. I’d started reading this book before but had flagged – I soldiered on during my reading weekend and was riveted by the last 2 chapters (which he should have put first)

Here are Jon’s 4 best books: clearly, he’s more intellectual than I am!

Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence (1920).  Wharton’s novel is about the upper classes in NYC and how a maybe “disreputable” and free-spirited relative comes to town, heats up a man who is engaged to someone else, and roils up the members of this class.  Tragic, as the man begins to see outside the bounds of his culture, but the relationship is thwarted.

Morris Bishop’s Petrarch and His World (1963).  A life of Petrarch with many extended quotations from his work and poems.  Bishop presents him as the forerunner of modernity, the Renaissance, precursor of Shakespeare’s poetry, breaking out of the Middle Ages.  The “first”poet laureate of Rome after a long hiatus. Lots of characters — Boccaccio, Chaucer, the tyrants Luchino Visconti, La Scala.  Also, continuous war, particularly in Italy, and the corruption of the popes, etc. Connections for me were Fontaine de Vaucluse, Avignon, Mont Ventoux, Naples, etc.

By the Waters of Manhattan  by Charles Reznikff. Autobiographical novel about  Russian Jewish immigrants in NYC, the first half is in Russia.  Much of the second half is about the son of one of the immigrants who opens a cool bookstore.

Jumpha Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth.  Read less than half but liked the complicated parent/child relationships that were both particular to Indian immigrants but also common to people of all cultures.

Anna Gavalda, L’Echappee Belle about sisters squabbling with their sister-in-law together (2001).

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