Eureka! I've struck book club gold!
The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, my introduction to Dominic Smith's writing, has left me wanting to explore other works by this author and recommending this title for our book club.
The book travels back and forth from 1950s New York to Amsterdam three centuries prior, finally landing in Sydney, Australia in the year 2000. Similar to Girl in Hyacinth Blue by Susan Vreeland, Smith patiently reveals the story behind a mysterious painting and the web that connects three people over centuries and continents. I admire the way the story unfolds and, like a kitten chasing a string, I was compelled to keep reading.
I once read that a great book club discussion revolves around the "white space" in a novel, meaning everything the author has not said. This strikes me as true as I find myself seeking out people who have read a book I really enjoy, in hopes that they can answer some of my questions. In this case, "Was Marty happy in his marriage?" or "Why did Ellie agree to paint the forgery and did she subconsciously sabotage herself?" "Who stole the painting in the first place?" Mostly, I want to go back in time more than 400 years to ask questions of the fictitious artist.
Selecting books for book club is a painstaking process here. We take the job seriously and would love for everyone to be satisfied with the book selected, but some of the best discussions revolve around a book that was not universally liked. Although I don't think that will be the case with The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, a novel I hope to see catch on because it delivers on the implied promise I expect in every novel: a well-written, compelling story.
Smith does a superb job of letting events unfold over time and weaving the pieces together like a beautiful tapestry, but the white space he leaves behind is where the book blossomed for me. I really am perseverating on Smith's unanswered questions. Isn't that the true test of a good book? You cannot stop thinking about it long after you read the final page?
Fredrik Backman has scored another hit with his third novel, Britt-Marie Was Here. You remember Backman’s debut novel, A Man Called Ove, a tale of redemption and love of a cantankerous, solitary old man and his neighbors. Ove was a big hit with the customers at the bookshop and worldwide. Britt-Marie may have different foibles but she is the female version of Ove. The charm of the story however overrides the formulaic repetition. One of Backman’s gifts is creating characters distinguished by their difficulty to be loved and yet we end up loving them a lot!
Britt-Marie Was Here is a woman’s book. Britt-Marie’s world has been all about cleaning and organizing (forks, spoons and knives must be properly organized in the cutlery drawer). She abhors change and has lived a cramped life defined by her husband’s needs. When the worst thing happens, Britt-Marie strikes out on her own. She finds her way to a tiny town that is being swallowed up by unemployment and despair. Like Ove, she meets and becomes involved in the lives of her neighbors and that makes all the difference to Britt-Marie and the town. What distinguishes and elevates Britt-Marie to a story especially appealing to women is the inner journey she undertakes as she decides what she is to do with her life. Up until the last page I was not sure which road she would take and I found myself rooting for her all the way. She is rigid, socially awkward, obsessive and deeply wounded, and you’ll find yourself loving her and rooting for her with your whole heart.
And isn’t that the outcome we all want: to be found loveable despite our weaknesses, quirks and annoying habits? Backman’s novels reassure us that we are indeed loveable just the way we are.
With Memorial Day just past, here are two books — one fiction, one non — related to the military and all things armed forces.
Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War by Mary Roach
Reknown science writer and researcher extraordinaire Mary Roach delves into military and combat science with her latest book, set to publish on June 7. Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War explores the science of keeping human beings “intact, awake, sane, uninfected, and uninfested in the bizarre and extreme circumstances of war.” As usual, Mary uncovers the most incredible facts and tidbits of information, and expands your understanding of combat from kevlar helmets to the psychological and physical welfare of soldiers in combat. As with all of Mary Roach’s books, her writing voice is a huge draw. She can make even the most tedious of topics fascinating!
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain
I finally got around to reading this incredible novel published in 2012 by Ben Fountain, and I am sorry it took me so long to do so. I was prompted to read Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk after learning recently that Ang Lee will bring this award winning novel to the big screen in November. I must tell you, if I had a dollar for every time someone walked into the bookshop, picked up this book, and proclaimed it hands down one of the best novels they had ever read…I might own my own bookshop. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk certainly has won hearts and minds, and tremendous critical acclaim. (National Book Award Finalist, National Book Critics Circle Award)
The subject matter may not appeal to everyone. A U.S. Army unit, Bravo company, is shipped back “stateside” following the broadcast of a dramatic film capturing the company’s critical battle at the fictitious Al Ansakar Canal. Bravo’s victory/propaganda tour is punctuated by cringe worthy interactions with Americans who have little appreciation for the on going “war” in Iraq beyond “nina leven”, “currJ” and the “soooh-preeeme sacrifice” of the young soldiers of Bravo Company. With Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Ben Fountain holds up an enormous mirror in front of our country and the reflection is very, very unflattering.
If you missed this book when if published in 2012, pick up a copy and read it this summer before the movie hits theaters in the fall. Ang Lee will do a spectacular job with his film version, of course, but Ben Fountain’s writing is so good you must read the novel before seeing the movie!
Staff of Wellington Square Book Shop