Books for Thought | The Reader’s Shelf

Some of the best novels are those that get people talking. By introducing a new perspective, featuring gripping plots, and tackling ethical dilemmas, they become perfect catalysts for discussion among bibliophiles.

In Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West (Riverhead. Mar. 2017. ISBN 9780735212176. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780735212183), bold Nadia and gentle Saeed find romance in an unnamed Middle Eastern city as everything around them unravels into civil war. Hamid depicts the harrowing destruction of society in a deeply personal way, whereby something as normal as a visit to the car to find a lost earring becomes deadly. Magical “doors” allow Nadia and Saeed to escape the turmoil, and, as refugees, they remain optimistic while dealing with the feeling of belonging. Their youthful hope is contagious, making the reader want to stay firmly in their orbit. Through lovely language and endearing characters, Hamid crafts an uplifting story.

Lisa Ko’s extraordinary The ­Leavers (­Algonquin. May 2017. ISBN 9781616206888. $25.95; ebk. ISBN 9781616207137) was inspired by the life of Xiu Ping Jiang, who was profiled in a 2009 New York Times article. Old enough to start school, Deming Guo joins his mom, Polly, in the Bronx after being raised affectionately by his grandfather in China. Deming finds Polly to be loud, fun, hardworking, and totally committed to him. But then Polly doesn’t come home from work one day, leaving her son distraught and forced into an adoptive white family in upstate New York. Given a new name—Daniel Wilkinson—and guardians pushing him to assimilate, he grapples with his circumstances in moving, heartbreaking prose. Ko offers up a devastating look at the immigrant experience, the sacrifice of family, and personal identity.

Elizabeth Nunez’s Even in Paradise (Akashic. 2016. ISBN 9781617754401. pap. $15.95; ebk. ISBN 9781617754562) is a fresh, modern telling of Shakespeare’s King Lear—this version set in Trinidad and Barbados, tackling matters of race and class with captivating accuracy. Widower Peter Ducksworth believes that love is best expressed with flattery—sincere or otherwise. With that in mind, he divides his estate to benefit his two manipulative daughters over his kind and honest child, and the decision begins a startling series of betrayals. Knowing this landscape well as a result of living it, Nunez paints the beauty of the islands while also introducing the nuances of privilege in this accessible and graceful narrative.

An epic work of historical fiction, Annie Proulx’s Barkskins (Scribner: S. & S. Apr. 2017. ISBN 9780743288798. pap. $20; ebk. ISBN 9781476771823) depicts 300 years of the timber industry in North America. The tale starts with two indentured servants as they arrive in primitive rural Canada from France in 1693. Ultimately, one becomes a manual laborer and marries a native woman; the other is the founder of a successful lumber company. Their descendants are entangled in revenge, disease, cultural prejudice and annihilation, and more as Proulx tracks them through many generations. This skillfully structured novel features a huge cast of characters whose lives serve as a backdrop to the destruction of the natural environment. Proulx will have readers invested in learning about the brutal, rapacious logging business.

Doree Shafrir tells the story of the New York City tech industry and the wacky mores and expectations associated with it in Startup (Little, Brown. Apr. 2017. ISBN 9780316360388. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780316360371). It’s an anthropological adventure where very young and overly confident men—men like Mack McAllister—can make enormous amounts of money if someone falls in love with their idea for a new app. When Katya, a journalist at a gossip-fueled blog, inadvertently discovers Mack is sexually harassing one of his employees, she wonders if she should publish a damning story on this “superhero” and, if so, what will be the fallout? Shafrir creates a fascinating world of interconnected friends and coworkers and the brash, bombastic characters who run and fund the cutting-edge tech field.

In Lionel Shriver’s The Mandibles: A Family 2029–2047 (Harper Perennial. Jun. 2017. ISBN 9780062328281. pap. $15.95; ebk. ISBN 9780062328267), the United States defaults on its loans, the dollar is worth nothing, and the government is in complete disarray. All of the societal structures that have been in place to keep the economy afloat and maintain order are no longer viable. The Mandibles, a family whose challenges have been softened by the expectation of an inheritance and the comforts of a middle-class life, are thrown into chaos and move in together in Brooklyn to pool resources and survive. As the stress grows, everyone begins to reveal their true natures. Shriver adds wit to this frighteningly believable dystopian journey.

Neal Wyatt compiles LJ’s online feature Wyatt’s World and is the author of The Readers’ Advisory Guide to Nonfiction (ALA Editions, 2007). She is a collection development and readers’ advisory librarian from Virginia. Those interested in contributing to The Reader’s Shelf should contact her directly at Readers_Shelf@comcast.net

This column was contributed by Cathleen Towey Merenda. She served on the RUSA/CODES Notable Books Council and is currently a board member. She is also is on the University Press Books for Public and School Libraries Committee

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