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A book in hand

I gave up on e-books years ago. I hated the clicking noise to “turn” the page; I couldn’t “see” how far I’d gone; I forgot the title of the book I was reading. Sure, it makes sense for traveling, but not for me. I’d rather weight my bag with a book, or three.

There’s another pleasure to be found when carrying a book. Other readers notice, and chime in. The other day I was getting a manicure and next to me came a voice, “I loved that book. I’d never read Brooks before.” We chatted about Horse — I was about halfway through — and I recommended some of Brooks’ earlier works, such as Year of Wonders and People of the Book.

I’ve talked about the book in my hands to fellow travelers on the El, the bus, on airplanes. Books deserve to be seen, and discussed. 

About Horse, which I read for the Columbia University book club. Would I have read it otherwise? As per its title, the book is about a horse. Its chapters go back and forth, set in pre-Civil War Kentucky and other parts of the South, also in New York during the 1950’s, and in present-day Washington, D.C. The pre-Civil War strand was the most fully realized; I ached for the enslaved Jarret, who is groom to the racehorse Lexington until he isn’t, and must work cotton fields and in a forge. I fell for the horse — ! — because he’s a winner even as he goes blind. The other strands kept me engaged, too, as I wanted to know what happened to the lovers in D.C. and the painting in New York. Brooks wrote in a postscript that she’d set out to write about a racehorse but found she had to write about race, because enslaved and free Blacks groomed this prize-winning horse and others. This is a slow and satisfying read. 

Deborah Willis’ Girlfriend on Mars is laugh out loud funny, until it’s not. Amber lives in a Vancouver basement apartment with her childhood sweetheart Kevin; they grow pot in their bathroom and refer to buds as their babies. Amber launches herself from Kevin and that basement when she applies to be a contestant on a television show whose prize is a no-return trip to Mars. Could she win? The show and its competitors — think Survivor — carry this story. Is Amber really in love with Adam, the cute Israeli soldier, or is she faking it to stay on the show? A charismatic billionaire is funding this space travel; is it safe? Back in Vancouver, Kevin creates his own bubble, insisting he won’t leave the apartment until Amber returns. No spoilers. This is a very accomplished first novel. 

I love a family saga and this one — at 731 pages — delivers. Buddenbrooks, The Decline of a Family, is Thomas Mann’s first novel, published in 1901. (His publisher asked him to cut it: Mann protested, so the publisher put it out in two editions, and it became a best seller.) Most of us know Mann from school, where we were assigned his Death in Venice, a chilly tale about sexual obsession. One is not like the other. I think you should read Buddenbrooks (translated from the German by John E. Woods) because it’s a long, rich read about a prosperous German family making necessary and sometimes poor choices, often in the name of family. It is set in Lubeck, a city on the Baltic Sea, from 1835 to 1877. Antonie, my favorite character, goes by Tony. She’s a haughty, beautiful girl who accepts the seemingly wealthy Herr Bendix Grunlich in marriage even though she loves another. Ooh, I love a train wreck…There’s a reason this book is called “the novel of the century.” 

Inequity exists all over the world. In Standing Heavy by Gauz’ (translated from the French by Frank Wynne) we experience the life of Black male immigrants in Paris, beginning in the 1960’s, when they find work guarding factories overnight. Decades later, they’re still guards, providing security at a Sephora store on the Champs-Elysees. This is a funny, sad read about immigrants who’ve left Cote d’Ivoire in Africa for a better life in France. Instead, they get tripped up by discrimination and poverty as they protect capitalism and colonialism. This is a short, punchy read that lingers. 

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