Books We Loved, Mar. 2017
T.C. Boyle, The Terranauts (HarperCollins, 2017)
You may remember Biosphere 2 from the early 1990s. Basically it was a huge, privately funded scientific facility built on forty acres in southern Arizona for the purpose of demonstrating that life could be sustained in a closed ecological system. With its earth-mimicking rain forest, ocean, coral reef, savannah, and desert—each stocked with biome-appropriate fish and animals—it was meant to house eight people at a time for a period of two years on an ongoing basis. But there were problems—ranging from the fact that its funding needs required constant PR stunts to oxygen-level mishaps, animal and plant die-offs, and near starvation of its participants—and after two two-year sessions, the project came to an end.
T.C. Boyle has inserted his own fictional characters (some based rather closely on the real players) into this historical moment to explore what it might have been like to compete for the chance to spend two years “under glass,” to be one of the chosen “terranauts” (or one of the ones left behind), and then to actually live in the facility. Most interesting are the relationships that develop between the various characters, some of which will have the reader thinking of the premise of Sartre’s No Exit: other people are hell. Like all T.C. Boyle’s work, this novel is funny, witty, and fabulously thought provoking.—JS
Sharon Guskin, The Forgetting Time (Flatiron Books, 2017)
“I’m Janie. Noah is my son. Noah is Tommy.”
There have been many cases, documented and anecdotal, in which young children talk openly about what seem to be previous lives—the little boy in Los Angeles who remembered his “other dad” coming home from the mine covered in coal dust; the little girl, an only child, talking vividly about playing with her sisters. The Forgetting Time is the story of Noah, a troubled four-year-old who has recurring night terrors when he wakes up screaming for his real mommy and talks in detail about Harry Potter novels that he has had no exposure to. His older single mother, Janie, exhausts her resources desperately seeking a diagnosis and some help for her son, whom she believes may be schizophrenic. When Janie crosses paths with a discredited retired psychiatrist who is writing a book on children with previous lives, or “previous personalities,” Janie thinks she may have found the answer. Noah’s vivid memories correspond to the life of a little boy called Tommy, and Noah’s distinct birthmarks match the bullet wounds that tragically ended Tommy’s young life.
One fraught child, two mothers, one exhausted and one grieving—could Noah be the reincarnation of Tommy? Sharon Guskin draws us in and makes us believe that yes, maybe he could be. This is a suspenseful book, grounded in a fraught reality yet with elements of the supernatural. I loved it!—DS
Rocco Lo Bosco, Ninety Nine (Lettersat3amPress, 2015)
Ninety Nine begins like a jolt of cold water thrown in your face. Characters are primitive and raw in this coming of age story set in Brooklyn in the mid-twentieth century. Lo Bosco captures the tidal wave of the past that sweeps over an immigrant Sicilian family for which the urge to hurt takes precedence over the urge to love.
They are often their own worst enemies but so authentic you root for everyone, especially for twelve-year-olds Bo and Dante, who have become brothers through their parents’ marriage. They live on grit, daring, and obstinacy—often misguided, occasionally on target. Despite tragedy, it’s clear the children’s generation will get it right. The boys develop empathy and the wherewithal to escape. This was a totally harrowing pleasure to read, dynamic, well knit, a universally human story.—AA
Amanda Roberts, Threads of Silk (Red Empress Publishing, 2016)
Yaqian, a peasant girl in Hunan Province, is horrified when her mother insists on binding her feet, but this brutal and unwanted mutilation leads her away from the farm and into a school for embroidery, an art at which she excels. Yaqian develops a technique for stitching a piece of fabric in such a way that the reverse side looks as beautiful as the front. This skill (and a little chicanery) take her into the Forbidden City and the court of Empress Cixi, where she witnesses and chronicles the last five decades of the Qing Dynasty. It sounds like history lite, but Yaqian is so appealing, and her participation in the developing events so intricately woven that I found this fictionalized account both more compelling and more revealing than the memoir I read at the same time. The cover is stunning, too.—CPL