Books We Loved, Aug. 2017
Sofia Grant, The Dress in the Window (William Morrow, 2017)
World War II has just ended, and the survivors are ready to abandon the austerity of the war years, despite lingering financial struggles and the long emotional shadows cast by the husbands, brothers, sons, friends, and others lost in the fighting. Christian Dior’s New Look, with its lavish use of fabric and emphasis on the feminine silhouette, offers women weary of hardship a means of self-expression.
In this climate two sisters, one gifted with an eye for fashion and the tweaks needed to fit a pattern to the body in front of her and the other a seamstress so skilled she can recreate designs from Vogue with nothing more than scissors and her beloved sewing machine, should be a perfect fit. But old tensions and losses, rivalries and resentments, keep Peggy and Jeanne on separate paths.
This beautifully written ode to sisterhood in all its complexity of love, support, knowledge, and yes, conflict—each chapter linked to a particular fabric—opened my eyes to the importance of clothing as indications of something deeper, both culturally and emotionally.—CPL
James Morrow, The Asylum of Dr. Caligari (Tachyon, 2017)
A deft little novel, The Asylum of Dr. Caligari is a perfect fit for people with an interest not just in fantasy but also in history, art, geography, and linguistics. Like T. Coraghessan Boyle but with more palatable characters and less heft, James Morrow draws on actual historical figures in his novel. Although there was no country of Weizenstaat (“Wheat State”), there was certainly a Blue period for Pablo Picasso, and a painting by Duchamp called Nude Descending a Staircase. As a German speaker, and someone who grew up in an apartment filled with my father’s art books, I got a lot of knowing chuckles out of terms such as “Farbenmensch,” which refers to a man who comes to life out of a painting, or the description of Picasso throwing the narrator, an aspiring artist, down the stairs.
This is less a fantasy novel in the usual modern sense than an allegory about war and the patriotic frenzy that inspires men to lay down their lives. The plot is an elegant scaffolding on which to hang the author’s gems of observation. And I found some of the scenes disturbing. But the book offers considerable pleasure in its musings on art, history, and philosophy.—GM
George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo (Random House, 2017)
Bardo is a Tibetan Buddhist setting akin to limbo for the soul between death and rebirth, during which it prepares for reentry; its time in bardo depends upon the person’s conduct in life. In George Saunders’ novel the bardo becomes panoramic acres and neighborhoods for the souls of ordinary people who died during the US Civil War and includes Willie, Abraham Lincoln’s young son.
The many characters populating the bardo are funny, quirky, evil, insightful and as oblivious as they were in life. Some linger endlessly due to their bad human behavior; others, particularly children, are swept into death within a week. Most poignant is the living Abraham Lincoln, whom all see visiting and revisiting the tomb of his young Willie, attempting to cope with his loss.
Interspersed in the story are actual reports, diary entries, and newspaper accounts of events that preceded and followed Willie’s death. Their varied points of view recreate the tense times politically and personally for the Lincoln family and hint at Lincoln’s emotional suffering, which Saunders reveals. The montage format for illuminating one man’s sorrow and a nation’s grief creates an unforgettable story. Ironically, the characters live on well after the last page is turned.—AA
Sarah Zama, Give in to the Feeling (Sarah Zama, 2016)
A Jazz Age tale, set in a Chicago speakeasy where certain members of the clientele and even of the staff live on another plane. Yes, they are ghosts, and not everyone can see them for what they are. Susie (Su Xie), an immigrant sent from South China to marry a man sight unseen, discovers when she reaches San Francisco that her intended bridegroom has died. His friend helps her out by taking her to Chicago and supporting her, but in return he demands complete and unwavering loyalty. Which becomes a problem for Susie when a man named Blood walks into the speakeasy and wants to dance... This novella only hints at the larger story the author is developing in her trilogy, but it goes down like a well-chilled wine. —CP