I read a lot of books in 2020. But how many do I really remember? At this stage, Jan 3, 2021, I can name only a few.
The Overstory – this is the last book I picked up from the library before lockdown. I renewed it a couple of times online, so I had time to enjoy it. What an amazing story and how beautifully written by Richard Powers. The story is told in three parts, more or less, and it’s important to pay attention in the first part. There are several tales in which a tree (or trees) plays a significant roll in a person’s life. The second part follows up on that person in adulthood, and the last part sums up each person, some of them connecting. Trees continue to be part of each person’s story. For example, a woman who studied forestry came up with the theory that trees can communicate with one another. At first, she is heralded as brilliant with this new concept, but later denounced and she goes into seclusion. Sound familiar? This was recently a feature article in the NY Times magazine. The Overstory is in my top five ever – maybe my top two.
The Dutch House – Ann Patchett has done it again. In this book, a tale of interconnected families, the main character is an elaborate house in the area outside Philadelphia. Each character is well developed and believable. And I can see the house in my mind. Having grown up in New Jersey during this time frame, I felt I knew some of the people and places. And in my hometown of Ho-Ho-Kus, there were a few houses that could easily be the Dutch House. Patchett never disappoints. (my top one is a Patchett book)
The Last Kings of Shanghai – Jonathan Kaufman has written about a segment in history I’d never heard of. Jewish merchants from Baghdad moved to China in the 19th Century and ended up shaping China’s industry and opened it up for international business. The Sassoon and the Kadoorie families set up all kinds of businesses, starting with Opium but ultimately banking, insurance, hotels, textiles, metal works, and also offered housing, schooling, hospitals and more to create loyal employees. One story that sticks with me is about a Chinese ambassador in Austria in the 1930’s and 40’s who gave visas to Jews and arranged with one of the Kadoories to house thousands, thus saving untold lives ahead of Hitler’s campaign. While they became wealthy and partied with royalty and Hollywood, they did little to address inequality in the region. Kaufman is a Pulitizer Prize winner, so expect a well-researched and written book.
The Secrets We Kept – Lara Prescott has written a novel based on the CIA’s role in bring the novel Dr Zhivago to be distributed globally during the height of the Cold War. This is another history I’d never heard of. Boris Pasternak’s novel, which was feared to reveal flaws in the Soviet system, was not to be published in the USSR. Pasternak was under careful watch as was his lover, Olga, a literary agent. The manuscript was secreted to Italy, translated into Italian, whence the CIA received a copy and had it translated into English. It was ultimately distributed it around the world by agents of the US government! Astonishing. The novel’s characters are the young men and women in the agency in its early years, probably an accurate depiction of 1950’s Washington, DC., very male-dominated The author, whose parents named her for the character in Pasternak’s book, wrote this novel as a fellow in the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas. This was a book club choice last spring, and we were fortunate to have Lara on our Zoom call. She thanked us for inviting her. During the pandemic, her tour was cancelled so she was happy be able to talk to readers.