Summer Books Roundup… What we’re reading

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Normal People
Sally Rooney

I had exactly seven days to rest between the end of finals and the start of my summer internship. For those seven days, I decided to pick up a book. A friend had recommended “Normal People,” several times, but it’s place in the romance genre had always turned me away from opening the front page.


Never in my life had I read a romance novel and enjoyed it.

That all changed when Sally Rooney drew me into the love story of the wealthy, brilliant outcast Marianne and the sporty, popular middle-class Connell.

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“Normal People” took a deep dive into the four year on-again, off-again relationship between the two main characters. But with each chapter switching between Connell’s perspective and Marianne’s perspective, the story turns into a much deeper look at trauma from emotional and physical abuse, class, privilege and social anxiety.

While Marianne appears to have it all, the chapters from her perspective reveal a much lonelier, traumatic upbringing and while Connell is popular and athletic, his intellect and his own journey with grief and social anxiety is revealed throughout the story.


Despite my initial doubt of the romance novel, I started to find every excuse to sneak off and read another chapter.

If you’re looking for a 21st century love story between two young adults who are simultaneously figuring out how to navigate the world, then this book gives you that and more by incorporating a universal theme of internal struggles no one except those closest to you can see.

—Lexi Gopin

‘Spinning Silver’
By Naomi Novik
Armed with my new library card, I recently picked up a copy of “Spinning Silver” from The Enoch Pratt Free Library.

“Spinning Silver” is a retelling of the Grimm brothers’ fairy tale “Rumpelstiltskin.” This version follows three young women in a fantastical Eastern European land. One of those women is Miryem, the daughter of a poor Jewish moneylender. One day, Miryem decides to take over her father’s business. She is incredibly successful and brags to her mother that she can turn silver into gold. But she is overheard by the king of the Staryk, a race of fae creatures who torment the humans. The other two women the book follows are Wanda, Miryem’s family’s servant, and Irina, the daughter of a duke.

One of the most intruiging parts of this novel is how it reclaims Jewish stereotypes. Fairy tales are rife with antisemitism and Jewish-coded villians. In Miryem’s case, her Jewish community gives her strength, and her powers derive from her superb skills as a moneylender and a businesswoman.

I thought “Spinning Silver” was a fun read, and I raced through it. It’s definitely a great pick for anyone who likes fantasy novels or fairy tales.
— Selah Maya Zighelboim

 

‘The Emperor of All Maladies’
By Siddhartha Mukherjee
Recently, when I met a really cool oncologist, I decided that I was going to medical school.

After talking with him for a few minutes, he noted that if I was thinking about oncology, I should read Siddhartha Mukherjee’s Pulitzer-Prize winning biography, “The Emperor of All Maladies.”

Even though my dreams of medical school probably lasted about the same length of time it took you to read the title of this issue, the book was incredibly fascinating. You do not have to know anything about cancer or medicine. Also, if you’re scared of blood and other bodily functions, don’t worry; Mukherjee doesn’t delve into too many of the gory details.

“The Emperor of All Maladies” takes you on a journey from one cancer patient to the next. This book tells true patient stories while readers learn the ins and outs of different types of cancer. Cancer can be a scary word, but maybe part of the fear is that most people don’t know anything about it.

As I turned the pages, I felt like I was living through each challenge alongside the patients. The book was not a barrel of laughs, but if you are ready for something serious and intriguing, I highly recommend “The Emperor of All Maladies.”
— Shira Kramer

 

‘Waiting for Godot’
By Samuel Beckett
While looking for an extra option with which to while away the summer hours, I picked up a copy of Samuel Becket’s 1953 play, “Waiting for Godot: A Tragicomedy in Two Acts.” The plot focuses on a pair of impoverished and irritable vagrants whose long friendship has taken a turn for the grouchy, waiting outdoors for someone, or something, they think may be called Godot. Neither is sure what time Godot is coming, or if it’s coming that day, or the next day, or if it came yesterday, or if they are waiting in the spot where they are supposed to be waiting, or even what day it is at that moment or where they were and what they were doing yesterday. While passing the time, they discuss scripture, tell bawdy jokes, complain about the turnips and the carrot they have to eat and consider hanging themselves for the thrill of it.
— Jesse Berman

‘The First Man in Rome’
Colleen McCullough

Having come to the end of my backlog of books to read, I discovered I had at some point apparently acquired a copy of Colleen McCollough’s 1,000-page novel, “The First Man in Rome.”

McCullough, best known for writing “The Thorn Birds,” wrote “The First Man in Rome” as the first in her seven-book “Masters of Rome” series.

“The First Man in Rome” details the rise of two men, Gaius Marius and Lucius Cornelius Sulla, who will later end up on opposite sides of a brutal civil war that will lead to the collapse of the Roman Republic and the rise of the dictator Julius Caesar.

Both outsiders in Rome’s aristrocratic circles, Marius takes Sulla under his wing, and seeing how close the two become, it is hard for me to imagine them becoming the bitter enemies history says they will become, laying waste to the Republic in an effort to destroy each other.

I suppose that’s what the sequel, “The Grass Crown,” is for.

McCullough has done her research, as demonstrated in the 100-page glossary in the back of the book. The glossary goes into the class and caste distinctions in late Republican Rome, as well as aspects of culture, language and geography. The glossary also includes notes about where she has had to make “educated guesses” in her story regarding details.

—Jamie Anfenson-Comeau

Reviews by Jesse Bernstein

‘Double Blind’
Edward St. Aubyn
St. Aubyn is known for his Patrick Melrose series, five short novels about British people who are rich, sad, angry and on drugs. They’re mostly excellent and make you feel like you’re reading the world’s best-written gossip column, with no blind items. St. Aubyn’s newest, about three close friends bound together by love, the pursuit of knowledge and ecology, doesn’t sound quite so dishy or salacious, but the strength of his past work should be enough to sell you on this one. Beautiful cover, too.

‘Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch’
Rivka Galchen
When it comes to a sense of the weird, Galchen stands alone among the big name, young-ish American Jewish novelists — Englander, Krauss, Safran Foer, Cohen, etc. Her first novel, “Atmospheric Disturbances,” is a favorite of mine, the story of a one Dr. Leo Liebenstein and his “missing” wife. “Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch” tells the story of Katharina Kepler, a 17th-century German illiterate widow accused of practicing witchcraft. Widowed and persecuted, Katharina has to rely on her son, her few friends and her wits to survive.

‘Distant Fathers’
Marina Jarre, translated by Ann Goldstein
The rare case where the work of the translator is what got me interested. Ann Goldstein, a longtime editor at The New Yorker, is best known for her translations of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet, which, if you’re pressed for time, you should read instead of this article.

But if you have the wherewithal to soldier on, check out Goldstein’s translation of Jarre’s memoir. Jarre, who died in 2016, barely escaped the Latvian iteration of the Holocaust to become a novelist of the new, forged-in-fire Europe, and Goldstein does her work justice in this translation.

‘Filthy Animals’
Brandon Taylor
Taylor is both a wonderful novelist and a great Twitter follow, which is rare, because usually it’s one or the other. His 2020 novel, “Real Life,” was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and if a Bernstein Prize existed, it would have made my 2020 shortlist as well. I’m not yet big-time enough to have received a galley of his newest, a collection of linked short stories about sexy artists called “Filthy Animals,” but I’m looking forward to checking it out.

‘Wayward’
Dana Spiotta
Spiotta’s “Eat the Document” is a genuine classic among contemporary novels, and I’m not certain why she’s not much more well-known. Her forthcoming novel, “about aging, about the female body and about female difficulty–female complexity–in the age of Trump,” and also about a woman who flees her family, sounds like the sort of thing Spiotta will do well.

‘New Teeth’
Simon Rich
It’s actually amazing how many different funny things Simon Rich has had a hand in over a short period of time. The once-upon-a-time “Saturday Night Live” writer has many funny collections of stories to his name, and his four-part series for The New Yorker served as the source material for “An American Pickle.” Check out this new one for a good introduction to Rich.

‘Afterparties’
Anthony Veasna So
I didn’t know much about Anthony Veasna So before he died in December. I knew his work for the magazine n+1, but in the months since he passed there’s been an incredible outpouring of love and grief from the writers and editors that knew him, and I was inspired to look back into what I’d already read. There was only one conclusion: I want to read “Afterparties,” So’s first and only short story collection, and I look forward to spending time with the type of writer that is in short supply.

‘More Than I Love My Life’
David Grossman, translated by Jessica Cohen (Aug. 24)
David Grossman is one of Israel’s worthiest exports. His novels and essays are consistently thoughtful, generous and worth reading for the language, even when translated. For that, thank Cohen, who has translated many of Grossman’s works into English, alongside books from other big-name Israeli writers. If you don’t believe me, check out this newest novel of his.

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