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Beth’s Blog, September and late Summer 2016

Beth’s Blog, September and late Summer 2016

The selection of books this summer has been terrific.  Unfortunately some of them are still in hardback or large paperbacks.  But do consider your local bookshop before you order the e-book version!!

My absolute favourite is Emma Cline’s The Girls, probably the best debut I have read in years.  The author is 27 and her prose is amazing.  Don’t be put off by the story line which is a new, fictionalized take on the Charles Manson murders in California in 1969.  Cline explores the human element of the various members of the Manson family, but rather than concentrating on the charisma of Charles, she examines the attraction young girls have for each other as they seek their peer group.  Beautifully recounted, the book was an extra shock for me as I felt teleported back to my childhood in California – I could feel the sun, smell the L’Air du Temps perfume from my youth and revel in the freedom of those long, slow summers.

Just out is Annie Proulx’s long awaited new novel Barkskins, an epos spanning three centuries and covering two young Frenchmen who seek their fortune in 17th century New France.  The stories of the two men who begin as barkskins or woodcutters are intertwined with the history or Canada and the early United States.  Proulx draws a brutal picture of wilderness life, of the effects of the devastation of the vast forests of the new continent on the native Americans and on the ecology of the country.  Billed as her greatest work, the author regales us with wild adventures anchored both in history and imagination.

Eowyn Ivey’s second book has been published and this is also a wilderness tale mixed with the magic realism of the Pacific Northwest.   Located in Alaska, where Ivey’s acclaimed debut The Snow Child took place, To the Bright Edge of the World recounts the 1885 mission of Lieutenant Colonel Allen Forrester to navigate the Wolverine River in a move to open up the newly acquired territory of Alaska. Forrester’s adventurous young wife, Sophie, is left behind at the military barracks to carve out her own destiny during her husband’s year long absence. Written as letters and journal entries, this is one of the most moving accounts of life’s challenges I have every read.  Ivey is well on her way to matching Proulx’s reputation as a genius of literature.

After postponing my reading of what some booksellers and critics call the best book of 2015, I finally picked up Hanya Yanagihara’s tome, A Little Life, and found myself drawn into its pages and hoping it would never end. Four friends who meet each other during university in New York City maintain a special friendship well into middle age. While its premise is tragic, this book is a moving testament to Yanigihara’s skill in detailing the lives, emotions and the tenderness of the bonds of this group of young men. Truly worth your time this summer – and I promise you, it will kidnap your heart.

Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies, was a National Book Award finalist in 2015 and Obama phoned the author to tell her this was his favorite book. Reviews by the public are mixed depending on how much energy you are willing to put into a complex read.  It is a brilliantly written and structured tale of a marriage, its joys, its secrets, and what a couple really shares with each other.  The first half of the book shows the reader how the couple interacts – from the husband’s point of view; the second part reveals in brilliant twists just how complicated and remarkable the 24 year long marriage really is. Groff has been awarded many prizes over the years for the rich prose and creativity of her three novels.

For some real nitty gritty thinking about new strategies for approaching city planning and design, I can highly recommend the two books below, both written by Dutch authors who are working on the world scale.

A customer and old friend, Fred Bakker has just published The Smartest Places on Earth:Why Rustbelts are the Emerging Hotspots of Global Innovation. (Dutch title: Hier wordt de toekomst gebouwd). Authored by Bakker, the former editor of Het Financieele Dagblad and Antoine Van Agtmael, who during his tenure at the World Bank in the 1980s coined the term “emerging markets,” the book argues that depleted industrial centres in the US and Europe  are regenerating as “brainbelts” which will be capable of identifying strategies for addressing some of the world’s new issues. The book describes a recipe for turn-around – a sort of 266 page inspirational Ted talk for those pondering the future of cities. The bookstore would love to organize a reading or workshop on this topic if there is interest.

I had the privilege of participating in a stimulating book discussion at Springhouse, home for Radical Innovators on the Ruijterkade in Amsterdam.  Kees Dorst, Professor of Design Innovation at the University of Technology, Sydney, was visiting and discussed with a variety of design thinkers from around the world his new book, Frame Innovation: Create New thinking by Design. Dorst describes a new, innovation-centered form of design thinking to tackle problem-solving in organizations. He maps solutions that include rethinking a store layout so retail spaces encourage purchasing rather than stealing, applying the frame of a music festival to understand late-night problems of crime and congestion in a club district, and creative ways to attract young employees to a temporary staffing agency. This frame creation provides an inspiring guide which will help practitioners determine their own (bottom-up) ways of innovating.

A tip about a wonderful book translated from Dutch and brilliantly reviewed by both The Guardian and The New York Times. War and Turpentine, written by the award-winning Flemish poet and author, Stefan Hertmans, is a distillation of the musings of Hertmans’ grandfather on World War I. As Neel Mukherjee wrote in his review: War and Turpentine is the astonishing result of Hertmans’ reckoning with his grandfather’s diaries. It is a book that lies at the crossroads of novel, biography, autobiography and history, with inset essays, meditations, pictures. It seems to be aching to be called “Sebaldian”, and earns the epithet glowingly.”

Radio Girls, Sarah-Jan Stratford, 2016

At Townie Books in Crested Butte, Colorado, I picked up a sparkling novel which traces the history of women working at the BBC in its early 1920s broadcasting years. The atmosphere at the new company was electrifying – new technology, the chance to reach into the living rooms of people all over Great Britain, and the dynamism of Hilda Matheson, Director of the popular Talks programmes, who dreamed of expanding the knowledge base of all layers of British society. This is historical fiction at its best, giving us a believable picture of the new world after the end of the Great War.  An appealing and thoroughly enjoyable book!

Jay McInerney, Bright Precious Days.

Bright, Precious Days is the third in a Manhattan psychological trilogy, tracing the ups and downs of the lives of Corinne and Russell Calloway. Now in their 50s, the couple struggle with mid-life ennui and uncertain financial futures in a warm, well-drawn portrait of the times.  The book can be read alone.  On September 13, McInerney will speak at the John Adams Institute.

Young Adult books

I ran across a book from 2012 recently and was impressed by its treatment of teen issues of identity and sexuality. Written by Benjamin Alire Sáenz (and also issued as an audiobook read by Lin-Manuel Miranda),  Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe has received an array of awards.  It recounts the summer of two loners – Aristotle, an angry sixteen year old with a brother in prison and Dante, a self-assured teen with his own way of looking at the world. Beautifully written from the perspective of the non-communicative Ari, it portrays the boys’ discovery of important truths about themselves and the kind of people they want to be.

My top young adult book of 2015 was All The Bright Places by Jennifer Niven.  This incredibly talented author dealt in an uplifting (!) manner with the issue of teen suicide.  In her latest novel, Holding Up the Universe, she tackles how teens attempt to fit in to their peer groups.  Jack, with his swagger and nonchalance, is a master of disguising the fact that he cannot recognize faces. Libby, in the face of vicious sneers about her overweight, is determined to move beyond what people think because she wants to be “the girl who can do anything.”  These two unforgettable characters take on their high school community and learn to see each other for who they are.  A strong and poignant book!

Boekhandel van Rossum has selected the following teen book for our monthly Forum van Rossum reading group.  Those who have read the book are welcome to join us for the discussion on 29 September at 8 p.m. in the bookstore. 

Kook by Chris Vick is a hard-hitting novel about a group of teens in the surfing sub-culture of Cornwall on the southern coast of England.  Sam, whose father drowned when Sam was four, has just moved from London back to his birthplace in Cornwall. At loose ends as he tries to settle in, he becomes fascinated by his neighbor Jade, a beautiful and fanatic surfer always looking for the Big Wave.  The storyline is powerful (no spoilers here) and portrays the characters realistically – from escapism in drugs and alcohol to the search for excellence in what one is passionate about – from science to survival tactics in deep water.  Superbly written, the book draws you into its story with amazing skill.  Do join us to share your views!