A few titles for summer; most are available in paperback for maximum beach baggability.
Jane Austen Book Club, by Karen Jo Fowler. First published in 2004, this title is being re-released next month in a new paperback edition to tie in with the movie version set to open in September. The book was a New York Times Notable Book, and is enjoyable for anyone who loves Jane Austen, has been in a book club, or appreciates witty writing, well-drawn characters, and happy (but not sappy) endings.
For another take on the book club, there’s Hilma Wolitzer’s Summer Reading. This one took a while to grab me — at first the characters seemed stereotypical, but eventually the plot’s momentum drew me in.
Wolitzer’s daughter Meg’s The Position came out in 2005. It starts in the 1970s, and follows a family, the Mellows, whose parents write a how-to book very much like The Joy of Sex. She has the era down cold, the characters are fully drawn and unique, and the fallout from the children’s discovery of their parents’ book is both realistic and hilarious.
For more on embarrassing , politically correct parents, try Elinor Lipman’s My Latest Grievance. The only child of “the most annoyingly evenhanded parental team in the history of civilization,” Frederica Hatch lives, goldfish-like, in the dormitory of the small women’s college where her parents both teach. Complications ensue when a new dorm mother is hired — who turns out to be the ex-wife of Frederica’s father.
Another title to fit in before the movie comes out in September: Charles Baxter’s The Feast of Love. Baxter uses a handful of diverse but connected characters to look at love. It’s touching, beautifully written, and often hilarious. The movie looks promising: directed by Robert Benton, who also directed and wrote the screenplay for Nobody’s Fool, it will star Morgan Freeman, Greg Kinnear, and Jane Alexander, among others.
It’s too late to see the movie on the big screen, but another great book with a faithful movie adaptation is Namesake, by Pulitzer Prize winner Jhumpa Lahiri. It follows the Ganguli family from Calcutta to Cambridge, and explores the ideas of home, identity, family, and the influence books can have on our lives. Mira Nair (Salaam Bombay, Monsoon Wedding) was the perfect choice to direct this movie; it stands perfectly well on its own, but read the book first, and you’ll enjoy it even more.
Michael Chabon is known for stretching and blending genre definitions, and his latest, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, is no exception. Combining speculative fiction/alternate history with a noir detective story, Chabon has created a classic character in Meyer Landsman, an alcoholic homicide cop who lives in that special circle of hell reserved for those who work with (or in Meyer’s case under) an ex-spouse. The setting is Alaska, the premise (based on an idea actually proposed to Congress, but turned down) being that, after the Holocaust, Jews were given territory in Alaska — but only for 60 years, and the lease is almost up. A line that shows up often: “It’s a strange time to be a Jew.”