For a while now, I’ve been writing about outrage. It’s time to get back to books, if only for a moment.
I needed a thick, engrossing novel that would erase the rest of the world, and I’ve found it in The Shadow Land by Elizabeth Kostova. A young American woman named Alexandra Boyd flies to Bulgaria to teach English. The day she arrives, dazed with jet lag, she accidentally ends up with a piece of luggage belonging to an elderly Bulgarian couple and discovers, to her horror, that it holds someone’s ashes in an urn.
With the help of an English-speaking cab driver who has secrets of his own, she tries to track down the couple to return the ashes. The quest takes them all over Bulgaria, tumbling through its tempestuous history and uncovering the spreading stains left from domination by first Nazis, then Communists and now, perhaps, a populist strongman running for office.
The writing is stunning; Kostova tells the story with intense intimacy through the American woman’s eyes, but also stitches it together from narratives told or written or even found by the other vivid and fascinating characters.
For example, one ancient village woman with many great-grandchildren tells Alexandra about her first husband: “We were eighteen when we married. Sometimes, when I’m feeling wide awake in the early morning, I remember his name.”
Along with Alexandra, the reader is drawn more and more deeply into knowing and mourning the man whose ashes she lugs from city to village, and appreciating the people who, at great risk, share parts of his story.
On the nightstand
Another acclaimed novel I’m in the midst of reading is The Star Side of Bird Hill by Naomi Jackson. The story of two sisters from Brooklyn who are sent for a summer to live with their grandmother in Barbados, the writing is taut, tart and witty.
Fun fact: Naomi Jackson was a program officer for a foundation that funded the nonprofit organization I used to work for; I wrote several grant proposals that we submitted to her. So I’m now in the amusing position of reading a book by an author who has already read something of mine, albeit not a novel.
On the “To Be Read” list
I loved Laura McBride’s 2014 debut novel, We Are Called to Rise. A few days ago her second novel was released, with the evocative title, ‘Round Midnight. I can’t wait to read it.
What are you reading? What do you recommend? Which books have made you temporarily forget everything?