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  • C. P. Lesley

Books We Loved, Feb. 2019

Terry Gamble, The Eulogist (William Morrow, 2019)

When Olivia Givens and her family leave Ireland in 1819, the crops are failing and the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars has led to the loss of their family property. Soon fifteen-year-old Olivia is standing on the shores of the Ohio River with the rest of her Ulster Protestant family. The city of Cincinnati has just come into being, and that, combined with the illness of the family’s youngest child, convince the Givens to end their journey west in Ohio.

Right across the river lies the slave state of Kentucky. As the years go by, Olivia and her brothers become ever more entangled in helping fugitives cross the water to freedom, whatever the cost to themselves, their lives, and even those they strive to protect.

The Eulogist opens a window onto a time when the frontier began at the Mississippi and North and South, although divided by no more than a waterway, occupied different mental and social universes. Terry Gamble’s ability to reveal the many sides of complex conflicts and gift for making even difficult characters appealingly human should not be missed.—CPL

Lisa Halliday, Asymmetry (Simon & Schuster, 2018)

New York Times Top 10 Book of the Year

Hearing high praise but suspecting hype, I approached Asymmetry with skepticism but was quickly awed. It is a novel about why people write fiction. Its three sections are linked, and the challenge to readers is to see how. I believe I see the connection.

“Folly,” the first section, tells of an asymmetrical love affair between a young editor, Alice (many nods to Through the Looking Glass) and Ezra Blazer, an older, world-famous writer (many nods to Philip Roth) during the early years of the Iraq War. As their charming, tender romance progresses, the question arises as to how fiction differs from and mirrors real life. It unwinds ever so beautifully and ends abruptly with Alice’s crisis.

“Madness,” the next section, is a straightforward narration with poignant flashbacks by Amar Jaafari, an Iraqi-American graduate student being detained and profiled at Heathrow Airport. The asymmetry here is among the nations at war. It is Amar, pondering what limits our understanding of The Other, who notices that even “someone who imagines for a living is forever bound by the ultimate constraint: she can hold her mirror up to whatever subject she chooses, at whatever angle she likes … but there is no getting around the fact that she’s always the one holding the mirror. And just because you can’t see yourself in a reflection doesn’t mean no one can.” At the end, Amar is held, not knowing whether he can go on or must return.

The third section takes the form of a transcribed radio interview with Ezra about his personal history and his favorite music. In it, Ezra reveals how to correct asymmetry: “the extent to which we’re able to penetrate the looking-glass and imagine a life, indeed a consciousness that goes some way to reduce the blind spots in our own.” “Are you game?” he asks.

Here is an amazingly insightful novel. Completely entranced, I reread it to stay in that imaginary world and would read it again without hesitation.—AA

Michelle Obama, Becoming (Crown, 2018)

Becoming tops the nonfiction bestseller lists for good reason. It’s a heartfelt look at an absolutely amazing woman married to an amazing man. People feel as if they know a public figure, whether an entertainment star or a political presence. When I picked up the book I anticipated reading about a friend. It proved to be more true than I even expected. She invites you into her heart and her home, gracefully giving of herself in joy, fear, anger, frustration, and love. It’s a deeply emotional book told gently, and the reader feels a kinship, as well as awe, as she travels from childhood to FLOTUS to home again.

There are poignant moments and stories that made me furious, and there were times that I was grateful for her general attitude of forgiveness. I would have been a lot less so. If you’re expecting an exposé of the president, you won’t find it. It’s Michelle’s story. But she allows us intimate insights into a great man’s mind, as well as an understanding of what it must be like to be in his shadow. A brilliant woman in her own right, she took the back seat to Barack, and supported him in his drive for the presidency, all while knowing what she lost and what she gained by doing so.

The only part that didn’t rivet me was the portion about his second term. Having lived it all too recently, I kept waiting to read something I didn’t feel I already knew. Perhaps it was too fresh in Michelle’s mind as well, and she keeps that time quite superficial. I hope there’s a sequel! This is truly a book I loved, written by a person I take the liberty of saying, without ever meeting her, I love as well.—CHL

Liza Perrat, The Swooping Magpie (Triskele Books, 2018)

The Swooping Magpie is a harrowing story. There's no other way to describe it. Set in Australia in the 1970s, against a backdrop of social upheaval, Lindsay Townsend is a teenage girl whose parents—an alcoholic father with a tendency toward physical abuse, and a mother whose charity work is superseded only by her recurrent and debilitating migraines—are too wrapped up in their own lives to give Lindsay the attention she craves.

Lindsay is by turns naively innocent and brazenly self-centered, sometimes bordering on obnoxious, but underneath the cocky veneer is a lonely child who only wants to be loved. This makes her the perfect target for Jon Halliwell, a dreamy schoolteacher with seduction—and worse—on his mind.

What follows is the troubling account of what a pregnant young girl, shuffled off to a home for unwed mothers, goes through as her pregnancy advances and she’s pressured to give up the child for adoption. What makes the story even more excruciating is that it’s based on true events. As the story unfolds, the tempestuous teenager becomes a woman far too soon, and readers will root for her and cry with her as she struggles to uncover the truth about her baby’s birth and becomes a true heroine for other women in the same situation.—CJH

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