In homage to autumn and Thanksgiving, our theme this month is FALL AND FAMILY. I hope we all share memories of days of pumpkin and apple picking, baking pies and making homemade applesauce. As both children, and the keeper of children, we can’t deny the pure delight of the delicious aromas and tasty delights that pepper our menus in the last months of each calendar year.
Here are our picks to tantalize your fantasy taste buds. Enjoy! And guess what? They’re calorie free!
The Children of Men by PD James
Apparently I haven’t quite moved on from Halloween. I’m recommending The Children of Men, by PD James. It’s a dystopian tale. The Earth lingers at the edge of extinction because the entire population has become infertile. Science has failed us and living has become pointless, society having devolved into chaos and a pervasive sense of apathy. The rich indulge themselves, and pets have become the new “children” even to the point of having christenings.
The story is set in England, decades in the future, and was written before smartphones were the lay of the land, so you’ll have to overlook this technical flaw. The protagonist finds himself drawn into a group trying to protect a woman who has inexplicably become pregnant and whose child is likely to be used for the despotic government’s own purposes.
Unlike the movie, where the government is sadistic and evil, things are much less black-and-white in the novel. The story is rather emotional and gave me pause to consider the importance of family. The sense of longing and despair in a world without children, and therefore a world with no future, is a world where life isn’t worth living.
Sister Wife by Shelley Hrdlitschka
There are many different kinds of families in the world, and this book is about polygamous families. Sister Wife is told from three points of view: 1) Celeste, a soon-to-be-married teen who doesn’t want to be a sister wife but also doesn’t want to leave her family; 2) Taviana, a former prostitute taking refuge in the polygamous community; and 3) Nanette, Celeste’s younger sister who embraces polygamy and can’t wait to be married. These three very different perspectives allow the reader to see the situation from all sides and learn that a lifestyle that works for some doesn’t work for others, without totally vilifying either side.
Though I didn’t grow up in a polygamous community (thankfully), I was raised in an isolated rural town and understand the desire to live a different life than one’s family. It’s hard to break away and do your own thing when everyone is pressuring you to stay and accept the status quo. It’s even harder for Celeste whose family would totally disown her if she left. Celeste’s dilemma in Sister Wife is doing what’s right for her family or doing what’s right for herself. In the end, in a resolution I didn’t predict, she manages to do both – but not in the way you’d expect. I won’t say more. Just read it.
Dancer, Daughter, Traitor, Spy by Elizabeth Kiem
Set during the 1980s /Cold War era the book follows the defection of Marina, a teenage ballerina. Although she lives in a Russia of bread lines, Marina’s family enjoys countless luxuries. That is until Marina’s father, a chemist, stumbles on information about the Motherland’s use of State orphans to test their germ warfare program. The family makes plans to defect to America, but the KGB picks up Marina’s mother Sveta, forcing Marina and her father and later her Uncle, to flee without her.
I have mixed feelings about this book, despite the title, which is clearly a John LeCarre reference, it never commits to being a spy novel. It’s part fish out of water story, part love story…. Oddly, dancer is the smallest of its many threads. However, the author enticed me with rich imagery of Russia and of the NYC Russian Ghetto where Marina pirouettes across her tenement floor to the music of The Rolling Stones. Kiem creates a convincing Marina, a fragile teen forced to deal with adult problems and consequences. The language is evocative of classical Russian literature, with a style that uses both crisp abrupt rhythms and florid prose. I felt the author gave me a glimpse of what it means to have a Russian soul, happy to be alive in a world were even children are pawns in the game of politics. This is not a family with much to be thankful for, yet there is love. It drifts around them as sneaky as a Soviet agent, even as Marina’s world spirals out of control.
Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer
A young American travels to the Ukraine in search of the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis. His guides are two Ukrainian men: Alexander and his blind grandfather (who drives the car), and Sammy Davis Junior Junior, the old man’s seeing eye dog, posing as such so that she may accompany them.
Everything is Illuminated is a brave, capsizing tsunami of a book, plunging author and reader into an ocean of writing. The novel reads like a dance and resonates like a prayer, with even the typography weaving visual steps along a path that resists linear exploration. The reader is drawn into this dance, the leap from one chapter to the next demanding an agility of concentration that grabs hold and doesn’t let go. The narrative meanders, (much like the chapter headings) and traverses cultures, family history and time.
Jonathan Safran Foer sails above conventional notions of grammar. He breaks the laws that govern vocabulary and punctuation but leaves spelling intact. Carefully constructed anarchy teases the reader into the car with the three men and the dog. It’s a comic seduction, yet throughout the novel there is a sense of unease, the anticipation of pain and loss, the dread of great suffering beneath the laughter, like the body of a drowned horse beneath the waters of the river Brod. The poignancy of the journey is conveyed with subtlety; the disparity between the experiences of generations highlighted by Alexander’s bewilderment at his grandfather’s tears, his incredulity at the notion that Ukrainians might have been barbaric in their treatment of Jews. But his grandfather knows, and his remorse is witnessed through the confused, idiosyncratic eyes of his grandson. Alexander’s lack of awareness becomes ours, if we fail to bear witness to the atrocities that proliferate in our own time.
Many of my own notions about writing were called into question after I’d read this book. It made me want to waken that magical child in myself, the child that weaves her way along a path that is filled with marvelous distractions and curiosities, who perceives the mundane with wonderment and reverence. The novel encourages me to discover my own incandescence and to trust that the creative process will always offer something innovative and fresh, no matter how often a thing has been visited and explored. Everything is Illuminated turns fiction into a great adventure.