It isn’t unusual for readers to have special books, favorites kept close to our hearts which entertain, inspire and, sometimes, offer an escape. In Ann Hood’s newest novel, The Book That Matters Most, a mother and daughter both seek refuge in the world of the written word.
Ava Tucker’s life is falling apart. Her loving husband just left her for a ridiculous woman known as the yarn bomber, her father has dementia and her wild child daughter Maggie is incommunicado while supposedly in Italy on a college semester abroad program. A coveted spot in the neighborhood library’s book club opens up and even that goes sour; Ava tries to impress the group by blurting out that the author of her book choice has agreed to visit the club, when in reality she has no idea if the woman is even alive. Mother and daughter are both struggling; as Ava deals with the unraveling of life as she knows it, Maggie’s ditched her school program and instead is descending into heroin addiction while being “kept” by an older married man in Paris, who is both alienating her from her family and facilitating her drug abuse.
The book club’s theme is, actually, the book that matters most. Most members choose hoary classics like The Great Gatsby or Pride and Prejudice, but Ava’s choice, From Clare to Here, is an obscure title gifted to her as a child after a tragedy ripped her family apart and is a title she reread incessantly for comfort. As Hood alternates telling the stories of Ava and Maggie, she gradually reveals the secret of the real “book that matters most” and its pivotal role in the Tucker family. To explore more books about books, try Nina George’s The Little Paris Bookshop or The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler.
What would you do to help your suffering child? For most parents, the answer is probably “damn near anything.” Carolyn Parkhurst’s new novel, Harmony, follows a family’s tumble down a rabbit hole in search of an elusive fix for their autistic child.
The Hammond parents have reached the end of their collective rope. Their tween daughter Tilly falls somewhere on the autism spectrum, and socially inept behaviors which were confounding when she was little are frightening with adolescence looming. After being asked to leave yet again another school, Tilly’s parents seek help from an unorthodox source: a man whose charisma and promises lead the family down the primrose path to Camp Harmony. An internet shaman for the neurodevelopmentally challenged, Scott Bean promises salvation, if not outright cures, to desperate parents willing to fork over their assets and live the communal lifestyle at Bean’s utopian retreat in the backwoods of New Hampshire. Is Bean a savior, just another exploitative quack, or something else entirely?
Harmony offers the reader three points of view: younger sister Iris, who loves Tilly but is struggling to find her place in a family focused on its weakest link; mother Alexandra, whose relentless examination of Tilly’s issues propels the family to the camp; and, occasionally, Tilly’s own poignant and imaginative voice which reminds us that behind labels lie unique human beings who actually aren’t so different after all. As Parkhurst writes, we are “exceptional and ordinary, all at the same time.”
Music and history entwine in Bernice McFadden’s newest novel, The Book of Harlan, a story of one African American family spanning generations. McFadden found her inspiration for the title character of Harlan from her paternal grandfather, about whom the author says:
I never personally knew the man and neither did my father. All I had to recreate his life were a birth certificate, census schedules, a few newspaper articles and my imagination.
Emma is the cherished and respectable daughter of a Baptist minister in Macon, Georgia, until carpenter Sam Elliot sweeps her off her feet and, in the oldest story ever, Emma is pregnant. Newly married, Sam and Emma join the Great Migration of African Americans escaping the south and Jim Crow to find a better life, but leave baby Harlan behind with Emma’s parents. Landing in New York City in 1922, America’s prosperity trickles down to the Elliotts, who can finally bring their young son north with them. Harlan develops into a gifted guitarist who thrives in the Harlem Renaissance music scene and his job in a jazz band finds him touring in Paris on the eve of World War II. Hitler’s visions of extermination aren’t limited to Jews, and Harlan and his bandmate Lizard are caught up in an unimaginable nightmare.
McFadden does not sugarcoat the lives of the Elliott family, and by extension, the broader African American experience. Poverty, single motherhood, addiction, injustice and race-based prejudice cycle around again and again, making the upward mobility to which the Elliotts aspire a two-steps-forward, one-step-back journey. From the turn-of-the-century segregated south to the Newark riots of 1967, The Book of Harlan offers a sweeping view of 20th century African American life in which the constant is the unbreakable bonds of family and friends. Readers who enjoy Bernice McFadden’s perspective should also try The Turner House by Angela Flournoy.
Louise Erdrich is the reigning queen of Native American fiction, author of award-winning books for adults and children which showcase her native heritage. Her newest novel, LaRose, reflects Anishinaabe traditions as she explores the rippling consequences of tragedy and how two families adapt in both traditional and modern ways.
Landreaux Iron is a good man. He’s a loving father, faithful husband and sensitive nurse to his home health care patients. Hunting at the edge of reservation land, he takes aim at a deer meant to feed his family and instead accidentally shoots his neighbor’s little boy, Dusty Ravich, who is also Landraux’s nephew. Dusty’s death devastates his own family with grief and the Iron family with guilt. Landraux then commits a second unthinkable act: seeking guidance from his Ojibwe customs, he and his wife Emmeline give their own little boy, LaRose, to the Ravich family as atonement.
Erdrich unfolds this story at a leisurely pace. The grief experienced by the Ravich and Iron clans cannot be neatly packaged, and Erdrich allows parents, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins to wander down separate paths as each tries to accommodate this unique double loss. Woven into the scrim dividing this life and the afterlife are the mystical stories of LaRose’s ancestors and the societal ills, historic and current, which plague the indigenous North Americans.
Visit with Erdrich online at her blog at Birchbark Books site, which is also a purveyor of Native books, arts and jewelry. To enjoy more stories featuring contemporary Ojibwe culture, try the Cork O’Connor suspense series by William Kent Krueger.
On March 28, 1968 in Memphis, shop windows broke and mace-triggered tears flowed when African American sanitation workers marched to protest dangerous and inhumane working conditions; within days, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel kicked off a period of riots and mourning nationwide. Forty years later, Barack Obama was elected President of the United States. So, we’re all good now, right? In his newest novel Grant Park, Pulitzer Prize winner Leonard Pitts Jr. looks at the complicated dance of race relations as played out by two aging Chicago journalists whose lives intersected in 1968.
On the eve of the 2008 election, African American syndicated columnist Malcolm Toussaint, a man showered with professional accolades and prizes, enjoying the trappings of the upper middle class, has written a final piece in which he declares he is “sick and tired of white folks’ bullshit.” And, everyone knows Malcolm is tired of white folks because despite his white editor, Bob Carson, telling him this column cannot run, Malcolm sneaks onto the office computers and inserts it into the Chicago Post’s front page. Fall-out is swift; Malcolm is now jobless and the newspaper management team also fires Bob. An angry Bob sets out to find Malcolm, who has disappeared. Instead of hiding from everyone’s wrath, Malcolm’s been abducted by a Frick and Frack pair of suicidal white supremacists who intend to strap Malcolm to the front of their explosive-filled van like a hood ornament and blow them all to kingdom come at Grant Park as the first black POTUS makes his election night speech.
Pitts jumps from Malcolm’s and Bob’s pivotal experiences in the civil rights movement as it moved away from King’s nonviolent preaching to finding both men on the cusp of retirement, their discouraged, sometimes jaded, voices reflecting frustration born of lack of progress. Often farcically funny, Pitts manages to humanize the worst of us while pointing out that we, black and white, have no choice but to work together for change. Meet Leonard Pitts Jr. as he reads from Grant Park and discusses race relations in America today at the Towson Branch on April 23 at 1:30 p.m. as part of the BC Reads: Rise Up! month of events.