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Sometimes the book you seek finds you

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Emilie Rouskovitch Photo: Sam McPhee

I am often asked how I decide what to read next. I’ve read countless book reviews (The New York Times, Literary Hub, Slate, and The New Yorker, to name a few), received recommendations from friends whose literary credibility and scoured actual bookstores. But sometimes great books arrive in mysterious ways.

On a recent trip to New York, I brought “Crossroads”, Jonathan Franzen’s latest tome, weighing 592 pages and just under 2 pounds, thinking it would last me all week. After 100 pages I gave up, giving it a “maybe later” pass.

Fortunately, I was staying with my dear friend Gail, whose daughter is an avid reader. I stayed in her daughter’s room, and on her nightstand was a copy of Emily Ruskovich’s first novel, “Idaho.” The cover proclaimed the first author “Winner of the Dublin Literary Award” and the praise was exuberant: “Masterly…will remind many of Marilynne Robinson’s ‘Housekeeping’,” said the New York Times. “Poetic and haunting writing… enthralls from the start,” said the Guardian.

It was good enough for me. So, yes, I stole it.

“Idaho” by Emily Ruskovich Photo: Random House / Courtesy of Random House

“Idaho” is beautiful. The story of a shocking and inexplicable murder that splits a family apart, the novel is as much about memory as it is about loss and grief. It’s all the more remarkable that while we never get solid answers to the questions raised by the murder, it ceases to matter as we marvel at Ruskovich’s ability to get inside his head. of his characters. At one point, the story is told from the perspective of a sleuth; it’s a tour de force of writing.

(Note to Gail: Forgive me. I promise to send it back.)

Another memorable book came to me via my friend EH, head buyer at Green Apple Books, who I see quite regularly when swapping books for other books. “I saved this one for you,” he said, handing me a copy of Deborah Levy’s “Real Estate,” the third in her autobiographical trilogy. Levy explores how she, a female artist, chooses to live, both physically and philosophically, once marriage and child-rearing are behind. Always in the background are the assumptions of patriarchy. Virginia Woolf’s presence hovers throughout the book, and we get cameos from Simone de Beauvoir, Marguerite Duras, Susan Sontag and Louisa May Alcott.

“Real Estate” by Deborah Levy Photo: Bloomsbury Publishing / Courtesy of Bloomsbury Publishing

But this is by no means dry, academic work. Levy is funny, spunky and irreverent, not at all shy about describing the clothes, the food, the shopping, the gossip… the things that make up the lives of many women. I plan to go back and read the first two volumes of what Levy calls his “living autobiography,” and follow up with his Booker Prize-nominated novel, “The Man Who Seen It All.” Here is an excerpt that encompasses Levy’s worldview: “It seemed to me once again that at every stage of life, we don’t have to conform to how our life has been written for us, especially by those who are less imaginative than us. “

I picked up “Cry, the Beloved Country” (which I’m embarrassed to say I missed when it seems everyone has read it) from a small free library in a neighborhood park. While my dog ​​watches the picnic table area for bits of sandwiches, I am still perusing his offerings and have found many treasures there. I knew Alan Paton’s book was considered a classic and thought I would find out why. In fact, I recommended it for my book club.

Even those in our group who had read it before were blown away by Paton’s story of a racially-torn South Africa, written just before the establishment of apartheid. It writes with elegance and simplicity Stephen Kumalo, a rural preacher who travels to Johannesburg, a powder keg ready to burst, to find his missing sister and son. There he meets Msimangu, a priest who helps him in his mission and, in my opinion, one of the great characters of modern literature.

“Cry the Beloved Country” by Alan Paton Photo: Scribner

The theme of the collapse of tribal culture and the resulting instability is one that, unfortunately, resonates today. Pain and suffering are central to this novel, but ultimately there is a glimmer of hope. As a somewhat cynical person, beaten down by the social injustice we have witnessed in our recent past, I was surprised at how much this book moved me.

So be open to pleasant literary surprises. You never know where your next great read will come from, whether it will be the debut of an author or a recognized classic.