Every month, I make recommendations on WOSU All Sides Weekend Books 89.7 FM, an NPR member station broadcasting throughout central Ohio. Typically, I post a photo of the books’ dust jackets on Facebook after the show, but this month I decided to list them here, recognizing many readers don’t get the chance to listen to the mid-day broadcast and may not be on Facebook. So here they are, from the show on February 8.
After Emily: Two Remarkable Women, and the Legacy of America’s Greatest Poet by Julie Dobrow
I had this impressive biography in my stack of recommendations, but time ran out before I could mention it — this untold story about Mabel Loomis Todd and her daughter who brought the work of the beloved 19th century American poet Emily Dickinson to public recognition and fame. When the reclusive Emily died, her unknown poems, written on paper scraps found in her bedroom, were given to Loomis Todd, who deciphered, edited and published them. There’s much domestic drama behind this effort – Mabel had a long love affair with Emily’s esteemed brother Austin. Their bond caused a scandal (both were married), but the two lovers remained undaunted. Needless to say, their relationship ignited lifelong strife between the families.
Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss
A subtle tension murmurs through the pages of this unnerving story, narrated by 17-year-old Sylvie. Her father controls her with his fearsome anger, and that hovering potential is the source of the murmuring. He’s obsessed with ancient history, and for two weeks he makes Sylvie join him and her mother in a re-enactment of life during Britain’s pre-Roman Iron Age. The book’s beautiful moments come from Sylvie’s lyric, inner thoughts and also from details about the surrounding fields, forests and moors. I often find it pleasant to have a novel that can be read in a short sitting, and this is one of them, at only 130 pages. It delivers a powerful message about violence in ancient history that, when re-enacted, can reflect present-day desire.
Madonna in a Fur Coat by Sabahattin Ali
This novel appeared three years ago, published for the first time in English, a classic love story that’s been a best-seller in Turkey since it’s debut in 1943. It’s a slowly mesmerizing story that focuses on a young man who falls in love with a woman from her self-portrait in an art museum. He visits the painting daily and eventually meets the woman, a cabaret entertainer. But the story begins not with him in youth, but as a much older office worker and family man, indifferent to the world around him. He intrigues our narrator who says, “I’d come to despair of this tiresome blank of a man who sat so lifelessly across from me.” By the end of the book, we know why the man emotionally shut himself down.
The Frolic of the Beasts by Yukio Mishima
Another love story, this one was originally published in 1961 by the renowned 20th century Japanese author Yukio Mishima. Translated into English for the first time, it recounts a triangle of tension between a wealthy scholar (Ippei), his beautiful but enigmatic wife (Yuko) and a young man (Koji) mentored by Ippei. Koji is driven to an act of violence over Ippei’s extra-marital affairs and disrespect of Yuko. While that in itself is a climatic dramatic scene, it is only the beginning of a familiar plot line that Mishima transforms into an intense tragedy. He deftly manipulates the story’s timeline to create a captivating, unpredictable and culturally rich story that takes place in rural Japan.
The Current by Tim Johnston
I try to include a mystery or thriller each month, and this one offers a compelling story with believable characters, likable and relatable Midwesterners. It starts with two girls experiencing an assault at a gas station and then further down the road, in a blinding snow storm, their car slides into a river. While there’s a question over whether or not the car got intentionally bumped from behind, sending the girls down the riverbank – and that question hovers over the plot line — the bigger mystery is an unsolved 10-year-old cold case of a girl who drowned in the same river. Johnston effectively draws us into the mindsets of sheriffs, suspects and their families, creating a very real sense of place and time in this compelling story. The ending leaves open the question about why the car, in the beginning, slides into the river, leaning more toward realism than a pat finale.
The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
First published in 1996, this absorbing novel was recommended to me by someone who loves science fiction and knows I don’t have an easy relationship with the genre. It was a good call; I couldn’t put the book down for its protagonist, Father Emilio Sandoz, a conflicted Jesuit priest and lone survivor returning from a mission to the planet Rakhat in the year 2059. He’s unresponsive, prone to violent fits, physically damaged, and suffering beyond comprehension.
…he realized with appalling clarity that on his journey of discovery as a Jesuit he had not merely been the first human being to set foot on Rakhat, had not simply explored parts of its largest continent and learned two of its languages and loved some of its people. He had also discovered the outermost limit of faith and, in doing so, had located the exact boundary of despair. It was at that moment that he learned, truly, to fear God.
Through flashbacks to 2019, we get to know Father Sandoz and his priestly work in Puerto Rico, and how the trip to Rakhat is pulled together with a crew of special people close to Sandoz. What happens on the planet, and how Sandoz comes to share the secrets, make this a deeply involving story that’s as much about faith and philosophy as it is about other planetary civilizations.