Fall Reads That WOW!

Eureka! I’ve discovered a strategy for taking on the Orange Monster: engrossing books that transport me, like a time machine, to other worlds, where I can temporarily forget about our current politics.

My favorite fall reads have ushered me into the worlds of Chinese immigrants in San Francisco in the late 1890’s; into Moscow’s dwindling aristocracy after the Bolsheviks seized power in 1922; into a young American expat’s residence in Turkey where she confronts the ugly side of American foreign policy; and into family life in black rural Mississippi, narrated by a 13-year-old biracial boy.

Transcontinental railroad works similar to those depicted in “The Fortune”

“The Fortunes” by Peter Ho Davies covers a century in the lives of four Chinese Americans in California. The book opens with the account of Ah Ling, a Chinese immigrant, arriving in San Francisco in the late 1880’s when Chinese-American lives centered around back-breaking work in laundries or on death-defying labor crews laying rails for the transcontinental railroad.

The remaining stories focus on Anna May Wong, the first Chinese film star in Hollywood, where ironically white American stars got the Chinese leads over Wong; Vincent Chin, a martyr for the emerging American labor movement and John Ling Smith, a thoroughly assimilated contemporary Chinese-American who travels to China to adopt a baby girl.

“A Gentleman in Moscow” by Amor Towles was recommended by a friend. It centers on the life of Count Rostov, whose life is spared by the Bolsheviks on the condition he remain in house arrest at the elegant Metropol Hotel, where his once grand quarters have been reduced to a room not much larger than a broom closet. Towles crafts a thoroughly engaging read focused entirely on life in the Metropol. His careful rendition of a vanishing period in Russia offered a personal resonance since my mother had been an antique dealer who collected turn-of-the-century treasures.

Jesmyn Ward’s 2011 book, “Salvage the Bone,” about a poor coastal black family hit by Hurricane Katrina won the 2011 National Book award. Her latest novel, “Sing, Unburied, Sing” returns to the world of lower-income black life, this time in rural Mississippi, as seen through the eyes of Jojo, a 13-year-old biracial boy. Jojo lives under his grandparents’ roof along with his drug-addicted black mother and toddler sister; his white father is in prison. Pop, Jojo’s grandfather is the one stabilizing influence in Jojo’s life where death holds center stage. Sing, Unburied, Sing is an arresting book that will unsettle and inform you.

My nonfiction pick is “Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World” by Suzy Hansen. Hansen, a young writer from Manhattan moved to Istanbul after 9/11 because to her it felt like, “Americans had all lost their marbles.”

Suzy Hansen in her adopted city of Istanbul

This book is an account of Hansen’s awakening as she comes to recognize America as an empire that imposes its will on foreign governments–a far cry from the concept of exporting “democracy” she had thought to be the case.

As Hansen unpacks her ingrained assumptions she comes to grips with her Islamaphobia — learning to see Muslims free of the prejudice she had acquired in the States. I admire Hansen’s honest, confessional writing. She models a blueprint for Americans traveling overseas, demonstrating the importance of attempting to see another country through a local’s perspective.

Grace Paley at her preferred riding spot: the kitchen table

Grace Paley fans are in for a treat. Hot off the press is a new anthology of her writings, “A Grace Paley Reader: Stories, Essays, and Poetry.” This collection is infused with Paley’s lifelong activism–welcome inspiration for 2017 activists.

For those among you seeking ways to stage effective resistance, there’s Naomi Klein’s latest book,” No is Not Enough.” Klein writes with urgency, insisting we have to move quickly to form a new political movement to counter the rapidity with which Trump is rolling back social programs and leading us to war. Klein’s book is ultimately optimistic, because she believes the power to make change lies in the popular will.

For a change of pace, indulge in the healing powers of laughter through the classic 2008 New Yorker humor collection, Disquiet Please. This book never leaves my nightstand. I reach for it when I can’t sleep. Zany stories help to ward off the late night gremlins.

A walking library in London, c. 1930’s

This post was originally published on October 17, 2017: http://wowblog.me/fall-reads-that-wow/