July 19, 2006
The Perfect Reads for Those Lazy Days of Summer
I read and write during several days of rain in New York City, and I think about Los Angeles beaches, bleached with sunshine. So reclining on a couch isn't the same as stretching out on a blanket and listening to the surf, but there's a certain similar lazy quality, with pockets of time best filled with books.
This season brings engaging reading in a mix of genres: literary fiction, comedy, love stories, detective novels, memoirs, historical fiction and books that break genre boundaries; books by veteran authors and others not-yet well-known.
After not publishing fiction for a decade, Hilma Wolitzer makes a fine comeback with "The Doctor's Daughter" (Ballantine). Wolitzer's 17th novel is a lively and poetic novel about a 51-year-old book editor who wakes up one morning with a strong sense that something is amiss -- beyond the facts of her troubled son, faltering marriage, halting career and the increasing needs of her father in a nursing home.
Her father, who was once a top surgeon, is losing his memory, as she is combing through hers for clues about her family history, her marriage and the choices she has made. Wolitzer, the recipient of Guggenheim and NEA fellowships, captures ordinary life with tenderness and humanity.
In the opening pages of "The Attack" by Yasmina Akhadra (Talese/Doubleday), a suicide bomb is detonated in a Tel Aviv restaurant, as a children's birthday party is taking place and other diners sit down for what they assume will be a pleasant lunch. Many are killed instantly, and scores are wounded. Dr. Amin Jaafari, an accomplished surgeon, is called into emergency service in his hospital, which echoes with wailing and screaming.
The son of Bedouins, Dr. Jaafari has become a naturalized Israeli citizen and leads a life that's well-integrated into Israeli society; he's much respected by his medical peers.
The hospital is quickly crowded with the terrorist's victims. Just as soon as Dr. Jaafari finishes with one patient, another is wheeled in and by the end of the night, he has lost count of how many people he has operated on. Soon after leaving the hospital thoroughly exhausted, he is called back and asked to identify a body: It is that of his wife, and authorities are convinced that she was the suicide bomber.
Dr. Jaafari is confounded that his wife, with whom he shared a close, loving relationship, who was equally integrated and comfortable with their Jewish friends, could have had a secret life -- that something unknown to him could have driven her to this most heinous act. Ostracized by the community for his wife's action, he sets out to understand why she would sacrifice herself for a cause that seemed to have little place in their life together and, from what he's aware of, in her life.
This fast-paced novel is provocative and well-written, leaving the reader with powerful questions. Yasmina Akhadra is the feminine pseudonym of Mohammed Moulessehoul, a former Algerian army officer living in France who is the author of five other books published in English, including "The Swallows of Kabul."
On her blog, Village Voice sex columnist Rachel Kramer Bussel names Santa Monica author S. Hanala Stadner's new memoir the most offensive book title of the season, "My Parents Went Through the Holocaust and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt" (Matter Inc.). But once readers get over the title, they may be struck by the author's clear and honest voice. Stadner continues to shock as she unravels her life story of a Montreal childhood shaped by her parents' Holocaust experience, her efforts to leave home for Hollywood and their world behind her.
Her journey takes her into the world of drugs and alcoholism, obesity and anorexia, all of which she details, along with her failed relationships and her efforts toward recovery and healing. Her humor is on the edge. Stadner is known around Los Angeles for her popular cable access television program; this is her first book.
"You Gotta Have Balls" by Lilly Brett (Morrow) is another book that might have been served well by a different title. The Australian author whose last book, "Too Many Men" was a best-seller, Brett sets this comic novel in downtown Manhattan, where she now lives. In that novel and this one, she touches lightly on the lingering psychological impact of the Holocaust on the second generation with humor. Here, Roth Rothwax -- the heroine of "Too Many Men" -- is at first skeptical about the latest project undertaken by her father, a survivor.
He backs a Polish friend with a skill for making variations on meatballs in a new restaurant, and the place becomes an overnight success, the kind of New York restaurant where people make reservations weeks in advance. The book title is the name of the restaurant, and the novel features recipes.
"Adverbs" by Daniel Handler (Ecco) is about people trying to find love. The publication marks the return to adult fiction by the author of a number of popular children's books written under the name Lemony Snicket, collectively titled "A Series of Unfortunate Events." Here, the chapters are titled, "Immediately," "Obviously," "Collectively," "Truly," and 13 other adverbs; the interconnected, inventive stories about searching for love in its many forms are set in a taxi, courtroom, diner and back in a taxi, among other places. As the author says, "It is not the nouns. The miracle is the adverbs, the way things are done.
In "Triangle" (Farrar, Straus, Giroux), Katherine Weber creates a novel revolving about the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist fire in New York City. The author of several previous novels including "The Little Women," Weber tells of the granddaughter of the tragedy's last survivor, as she tries to unravel the facts, while a feminist scholar gets in her way as she tries to do the same. This absorbing novel probes the borders between memory and history. Weber's own grandmother finished buttonholes for the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in 1909.