The Nightingale by Kristen Hannah
I read The Nightingale for one of my book clubs. It’s the story of two sisters living in occupied France during WWII. The sisters are different from each other in many ways. The older sister, Vianne, is married, lives in the countryside and has a daughter. The younger, Isabelle, is kicked out of school and sent back to her father in Paris. She’s impulsive and impetuous, traits some argue work against her. Both sisters end up helping the Allies, but in different ways. Isabelle leads fallen pilots back to safety across the Pyrenees while Vianne helps protect the children of Jewish families, who would otherwise be taken off to the camps.
At first, I found the book to be slow going, but things picked up and it became an engaging read around the time that Isabelle starts leading her rescue missions. The novel really shows what life was like during the occupation, depicting the challenging choices the sisters (particularly Vianne) need to make to survive.
Numero Zero by Umberto Eco
Numero Zero was the first book by Umberto Eco I’ve ever read. It was for my other book club, and was chosen because of Eco’s recent passing. A short novel, Numero Zero delves deep into (and pokes fun at) the political scandals plaguing Italy in the early 1990s. An erstwhile ghostwriter, Colonna, lands an assignment as an editor for a newspaper in development called Domani (“tomorrow” in Italian). The mission of the paper is to focus on the stories of tomorrow and to blackmail certain people in power.
During his tenure as editor, Colonna meets a number of other losers, including Bragadaccio, who claims to have discovered a political scandal involving Mussolini, and a young woman who wants to do serious reporting but keeps getting stuck on the celebrity beat.
Although I really didn’t know anything about Italian politics (aside from those weird parties Berlusconi had a few years ago), the book was a fun read. I was expecting something dense and difficult to get into and instead found the opposite.
Amnesia Moon by Jonathan Lethem
I was staring at my bookshelf one day in March when I glanced on Amnesia Moon, the second novel by Jonathan Lethem, who’s one of my favorite writers. “Did I even like this book?” I asked myself, “or am I just keeping it because it’s Lethem?” To figure that out, I decided to re-read it. Consensus: I didn’t really like it, but it’s not a bad novel.
Very clearly inspired by the works of Philip K. Dick, the novel is set in a post-apocolyptic world. No one really knows what happened, except that something clearly did. There’s a before and after in the characters’ lives, the tricky thing is figuring what the before was. The main character starts out being a person named Chaos, but as the story unfolds and he travels across the country, accompanied by a mutant child named Melinda, he realizes that his name is actually Everett Moon.
Each of the towns Moon and Melinda visit have some weird thing going on. One town is covered in a green mist that keeps the residents from seeing clearly. Another is governed by a powerful elite and ruled by luck — residents are judged based on how lucky they are – the lower your luck, the worse off you are.
Amnesia Moon is very much an early work, and it shows a writer still developing his voice. I’m not a super fan of PKD (OK, I’m not a fan at all), and I’m pretty sure that’s why the novel didn’t resonate with me the first time I read it (there are so many parallels and similarities with PKD’s stories in the novel, it’s almost like an author learning to write by imitation), or the second time through, for that matter.
As She Climbed Across the Table by Jonathan Lethem
As She Climbed Across the Table was the first novel I ever read by Lethem, for my senior seminar class in Magic Realism back in college. Is it magic realism or science fiction? was one of the questions we focused on while reading the book. In the end, it doesn’t really matter, as the story is a compelling one.
Philip Engstrand is a professor of anthropology at a college in California. His girlfriend is Alice Coombs, a particle physicist, also at the same college. At the start of the book, Alice’s department has a major breakthrough, creating a void that eventually becomes known as the Lack. Lack starts eating things, sending them who-knows-where. But, it (he?) only eats certain things, rejecting others. Alice and several other scientists (plus a resident Derrida stand-in) all try to make sense of Lack, to figure out what it (he?) wants.
Philip is left to try to pick up his life after the appearance of Lack. Alice is strangely drawn to the void, altering their relationship forever. In short, the novel is a story of a guy who gets the girl, then loses her, then tries to do what he can to win her back.
It’s a spoof on science and modern academia. But, it’s also your classic romantic comedy, with the guy being a bumbling fool who thinks he’s lost the girl, only to have a (sort of) happy ending.