Three novels, one reminiscence

This is the time of year when the thing to do is list my favorite books of 2022, but I’m not in the mood for that. I’d rather share the new books added to my reading table, which I think you’ll enjoy. And here I had planned to get books off my reading table in December before the New Year starts.

I picked up this novel to read something otherworldly and lighter, a need I had at the moment given what I’d been reading. Being set in North Korea, you’d think The Sorcerer of Pyongyang would be dark, but it’s not, the story of Cho Jun-Su, a boy who comes to possess a copy of the Dungeons & Dragons player’s handbook left behind by a British tourist. He shares it with a teacher, who translates the book and teaches the roleplaying game to the 10-year-old. They call it the House of Possibility. The gaming strategies influence Jun-Su’s destiny by how they teach him to think smartly, like a fox, and to survive. The story follows him into adulthood as a loyal citizen of the Fatherland and devoted follower of the Dear Leader. Author Marcel Theroux offers a fascinating lens into North Korean political indoctrination, elite government life, prison, famine, and international thieving. He also includes a love story and, in the end, a victory. I flew through it.

I did one of those “I’ll just read a few pages” as I picked up this book. I was procrastinating and delightfully because, within the first 20 pages, I was laughing out loud. A blurb on the back of Factory Girls by The Sunday Times (UK) says it’s “at times savagely funny, but with a loamy undertow of complex feeling” and the Irish Independent says it’s “brilliantly, wickedly funny and soul-crushingly sad.” Here’s how it starts: Maeve Murray, in the Northern Irish town where she grew up during the Troubles, now the summer of 1994, is hoping for good final exam results. She wants to study journalism in London and get the heck out of Dodge. Meanwhile, she takes a summer job at a shirt factory with her best friends. She must iron 100 shirts an hour every day and interact with the English boss, Handy Andy Strawbridge. It’s a Catholic and Protestant workforce, and so there are tensions, which from the dust jacket flap seems to be where Maeve “faces the test of a lifetime.” I eventually had to put down the novel and get on with what I was doing, but it awaits!

Everything I’ve read about They’re Going to Love You gets raves, the story of a choreographer who looks back on her estranged family’s past. A phone call arrives from which 40-something Carlisle Martin learns her father is dying. She’s been estranged from Robert and his partner James for almost 19 years but now feels compelled to visit them in their apartment on Bank Street in Greenwich Village to say good-bye. “Bank Street plays an outsized role in Carlisle’s imagination,” according to the Kirkus Reviews summary. “She spent summers there in the 1980s and ’90s, ensconced in the world of ballet—where Robert, James, and her mother were fixtures in the 1950s and ’60s—and witnessing the impact of the AIDS epidemic on James and Robert’s large circle of friends.” The dustjacket flap says:

With…a masterfully revealed secret at its heart, [the novel] asks what it takes to be an artist in America, and the price of forgiveness, of ambition, and of love.

It sounds too good to miss.

One Hundred Saturdays keeps nudging me to read it, ever since its release in September. And so, when I saw it listed among the many 10 Best Books of 2022 lists, I had a feeling this was THE ONE that always makes itself known at the end of the year that I shouldn’t let get away. Author Michael Frank met nonagenarian Stella Levi at a lecture on the history of fascism and then visited her Greenwich Village apartment to ask a question about the Juderia, the neighborhood on the Mediterranean island of Rhodes where she grew up. That visit on a Saturday afternoon became the first of one hundred Saturdays over six years during which Stella told her life story to Mr. Frank. From the dustjacket flap: “During these meetings Stella traveled back in time to conjure what it felt like to come of age on this luminous, legendary island in the eastern Aegean, which the Italians began governing as an official possession in 1923 and transformed over the next two decades until the Germans seized control in September 1943.” The Germans sent residents of the Juderia to Auschwitz by boat and then train, including Stella.

With nearly a century of life behind her, Stella Levi had never before spoken in detail about her past. Then she met Michael Frank.

I’ve read many books about the Holocaust, but I’ve never heard of the Juderia, nor do I know much about the island of Rhodes. I’m intrigued.

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