February 18, 2018

The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan

If you have any young readers in your social circle, you may want to check out YA author Rick Riordan who has been appealing to the Harry Potter market. Riordan has cleverly used Greek mythology as the basis for many of his books, most notably Percy Jackson & the Olympians, a five book series with Percy/Perseus as the half human son of Poseidon as the main character.

Riordan first created the characters as bedtime stories for his son, Haley who had been diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia, handicaps that Riordan gave to his fictional hero, Percy. He also created a 5-book sequel series, The Heroes of Olympus.

Based on my reading of the first book, The Lightning Thief, I can see why the books are popular. Riordan has cleverly incorporated the ancient names, relationships and story lines of Greek gods and mortals into a current day scenario with tweens and teens as the major players.

As much as I liked Edith Hamilton’s book, Mythology, these Rick Riordan creations would have made Greek mythological study much more palatable. While these works of fiction might not become as popular as J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, they certainly would be great reads for adults and youngsters to share.

The Namesake by author Jhumpa Lahiri

I was familiar with Indian-born author Jhumpa Lahiri, having read Interpreter of Maladies, her Pulitzer Prize-winning short story collection from 1999, but had not read any of her longer works. My book club devotee sister happened to send me a hard copy of her full novel for Christmas, The Namesake published in 2003.

Lahiri started the book as a novella for The New Yorker Magazine and then expanded it. The main character, Gogol Ganguli is named after the famous Russian author. Born in the United States, Gogol creates a life for himself in Boston and New York with uncomfortable periodic family visits to Calcutta.

We follow his life as he takes two brides, becomes an architect and grapples with his two names, his more conventional Indian name, Nikhil and that of Gogol, the nickname he acquired due to a freak accident that almost took his father’s life.

This is a timely read since it portrays the life of a child with foreign-born parents who desperately tries to breech the divide between his current American culture and that of his parents’ family in India. He talks like an American and dresses like one, but is he the hybrid result of his two cultures?

Lahiri’s writing has much in common with the Russian authors she must admire, not only Gogol, but Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Pushkin. Her prose is poetic and descriptive but never seems studied or stilted. Despite the literary bona fides, the book has an engaging plot that will keep you turning pages.

Thanks, Sis.

Wool by science fiction author Hugh Howey

Dystopian novels have started to bug me so I had vowed to take a break from them. My teacher brother-in-law got me to relent one more time with the highly recommended Wool Trilogy by Hugh Howey.

Book One is actually 8 books that depict life in an enclosed Silo, seen from the perspective of Holston, the Silo’s sheriff, Jahns, the Silo’s mayor and Juliette, the new sheriff after Holston chooses to leave the protection of the Silo. Juliette becomes friends with Lukas, an IT guy who is interested in astronomy. Bad guy Bernard, head of IT, engineers a coup that causes a revolt led by workers from “down below.”

Author Hugh Howey

Howey has created an unusual world filled with fascinating characters who get caught up in power trips, tradition and deception. While working at a bookstore, he wrote the first installments of Wool and self-published the science fiction piece on the internet. It was not until the work took off that he signed a print-only deal with Simon and Schuster. Twentieth Century Fox has purchased the movie rights.

The trilogy continues with Shift and Dust. I have copies of them waiting for me at the library. Hey, science fiction buffs, wanna meet me at the Silo? Let’s just say that I’m glad I made an exception for one more dystopian story.

Anything Is Possible by Elizabeth Strout

How have I missed reading Elizabeth Strout before now? I surely recognize titles like the Pulitzer Prize-winning Olive Kitteridge and My Name Is Lucy Barton but I happened upon her current novel, Anything Is Possible quite by accident. I simply liked that hopeful phrase. Little did I know that Anything refers to both good and very bad things.

The novel unspools as separate short stories about the inhabitants of the small town of Amgash, Illinois. Many of the characters are connected in surprising ways with the fictional author of My Name Is Lucy Barton figuring into this current work.

Anything Is Possible reminds me of the famous play, Our Town but with even darker secrets hiding in the hearts of Amgash’s inhabitants.

Strout’s lyrical prose pulls you through passages of both great pain and joy. I may just have to explore her previous works to hear more of that voice that embraces all those who transgress, who suffer and those who transcend their trials.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

When a book wins the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and is a choice for Oprah’s Book Club, notice must be taken. Such is the case with The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, an epic novel about Cora, a slave on a Georgia cotton plantation.

The book has been on my “to read” list since its 2016 release, but I must admit, the topic of slavery was a tough issue for me to tackle; likewise, the Holocaust. How can anyone justify such inhumanity to other sentient beings? Whitehead, however, allows the reader to think about these issues through the eyes of slaves, slave owners, slave hunters and people on both sides of Abolition.

The Underground Railway is fiction with a touch of magical realism. In Whitehead’s world before the Civil War, the railroad is an actual transportation system with secret stations, tracks and volunteers both black and white who keep the conveyance running.

The novel has much in common with The Iliad and other ‘grand journey’ stories, but Whitehead has imbued the writing with emotional scenes and unforgettable character depictions. Cora encounters villains and heros alike on her flight from slavery.

I often found myself close to tears while listening to this masterful work. Yes, I used an audio book to experience The Underground Railroad.

However you choose to experience this award-winner, I urge you to consider reading The Underground Railroad. I plan to get a paper copy in the near future so I can further appreciate the fine writing of Colson Whitehead.

And what a movie this will make! Spielberg or Oprah, have either of you bought the movie rights yet?

Lincoln In the Bardo by writer George Saunders

One of my favorite fans recommended the novel Lincoln in the Bardo, an unusual and poetically moving work by George Saunders.

Saunders was impelled to write a book about the death of Abraham Lincoln’s beloved son, Willie when he learned that newspaper accounts reported Abe creepily and heartbreakingly visited his son’s crypt to hold the recently dead body. Imagine the Pieta with Lincoln and Willie as stand-ins.

Saunders’ book takes place over one evening in the “bardo,” a limbo-like place between life and death and uses true history citations as well as fictional footnotes.

Another book-loving friend found the middle of the book to be tedious, but I found it to be one of the most creative pieces of writing that I have encountered in quite a while. James Joyce’s Ulysses comes to mind as we become privy to the thoughts of Lincoln, Willie and several other “sick-box” residents.

Those who want a speedy plot-driven read should look elsewhere. If you’re up for a challenging mixture of fact and fiction, beautifully and adventurously written, consider diving into the Bardo.