Let’s get wrapped up in a great novel. Here’s what I shared on WBRC Fox 6 this month. Fiction, brand-new and older, that will captivate you from page one.
In the Company of Men by Veronique Tadjo
This book draws on the terrible facts of the widespread 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, and it’s a fable about the strength and the fragility of humans. Of course, it’s especially timely right now during the pandemic. The story (only 160 pages) is told from the point of view of villagers, traditional healers, nurses, doctors, patients as well as the baobab tree, a bat and the Ebola virus itself. Tadjo weaves conversational narrative with poetry and traditional songs and day-to-day life before and during a frightening and devastating period. It’s difficult to read at times, but it’s beautifully written. A few voices stand out: the grandmother who took in an orphaned boy; the young girl sent away from her dying village; the man in charge of the disinfecting spray; and the insidious virus, which is chillingly pragmatic. But the ancient and wise baobab, who mourns the state of the earth where man increasingly encroaches on the forest, has seen all this before. And he’s the one who ultimately, sees the strength of those suffering and offers hope for the future.
This might be the best American novel you haven’t yet read. Stoner was written in 1965 but reissued a few times since then and it’s received a surge of popularity since it was republished in 2006 by New York Review Books Classics. It Set on a college campus in the Midwest, it’s the story of William Stoner and his undistinguished career as an assistant professor, his troubled marriage to his wife Edith, a short affair with a colleague and his lifelong love of literature. That said, it is absolutely riveting. Born on a small farm in 1891, Stoner goes to the University of Missouri on scholarship to study agriculture and, in his sophomore year, during the required survey course in English, he falls in love with literary studies. And he never leaves. Decades pass. Stoner teaches through two world wars (at times brilliantly); marries an absolutely hateful woman who uses their daughter, Grace, (Stoner’s single joy) as a weapon; navigates cutthroat academic politics made more complicated by a vicious enemy on the staff; and finds love for a short time with a colleague, Katherine. The book is about a quiet life—an unremarkable life, really—but it is beautifully written and will stay with you for a long, long time.
This brand-new novel is told in various voices of people staying at a collection of vacation cabins on a Scottish loch. They rarely talk to each other, but they always notice what the others are doing. And most have noticed that one family does not seem to belong. The story begins early in the morning when a young mother goes on a solitary run. We join an older couple lamenting the changes that have come to their family vacation place. We see a young woman trying to find a little time away from her attentive boyfriend, a young boy escaping the scrutiny of his family when he takes a canoe too far out on loch, a small group of children playing where they shouldn’t. In the course of this single rainy day, they’ll go from being strangers to allies. Against the awe-inspiring beauty of the natural world, there’s a subtle (and building) sense of menace throughout the narrative, so when something terrible happens, the reader is not really surprised. But what exactly happens is surprising in this short, twisty novel.
The Dutch House by Ann Patchett
Named one of the best books of 2019, this Pulitzer Prize finalist has been on my list for a while. It’s the story of a remarkable house, the siblings who lived there and lost it and the hold it has over them for their entire lives. At the end of WWII, Cyril Conroy parlayed a single good investment into a real estate empire and suddenly his poor family is enormously wealthy. So, he buys a house—The Dutch House—on a huge estate outside Philadelphia. The house is meant as a surprise for his wife, but it eventually tears the family apart. The story is told by Cyril’s son, Danny, who with his older sister, Maeve, lived in the house with their father after their mother left them. Cyril eventually remarries and after his untimely death, the stepmother exiles the siblings from the house and sells the business. Danny and Maeve are suddenly poor again, but they have each other. The story plays out over five decades, with the siblings returning again and again to sit in Maeve’s car outside the house and talk (with humor as well as anger) about their lives past and present and all that they lost. When their mother reenters the picture, their relationship is finally tested, and forgiveness is the only way forward from a past they won’t easily let go.
I link to Amazon to show you exactly what book I’m talking about, but I love to shop locally at Church Street Coffee and Books, The Alabama Booksmith, Little Professor Book Center, and I often visit my local library.