A recurring feature by Becky Meloan showcasing recently released books that book clubs may find interesting.
By Becky Meloan
In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner
Simon & Schuster
In 1975, the Khmer Rouge took control of Cambodia and subjected the country to radical social reform, converting the country to an agrarian-based communist society. Families were forced apart, and those with social status or knowledge, sometimes defined just by wearing glasses, were targeted. Citizens were forced into farm labor camps where they were beaten, tortured and starved. Many were executed.
Vaddey Ratner’s debut novel tells the story of those desperate years from the vantage point of a 7-year-old girl, Raami. Her father was a prince and a poet, and they lived with her “Queen Grandmother.” As targets for the revolution, their family did not fare well, and it is Raami’s childlike perceptions and misperceptions that make the unthinkable atrocities bearable reading. Raami was loved as a child, and it is this certainty of being loved that gives her the will to carry on despite her mounting losses.
Although written as a novel, the author says, “Raami’s story is, in essence, my own.” In an author’s note, she explains why she chose to write her story as fiction rather than as a memoir.
Bottom Line: Those with a less-than-complete understanding of the Khmer Rouge’s atrocities in Cambodia in the late 1970s might benefit from doing a little research before beginning the book. Books clubs that add history to their discussion will have a richer perspective.
Me, Who Dove Into the Heart of the World by Sabina Berma
Henry Holt & Company
Like the real-life Temple Grandin, fictional Karen Nieto is a person with high-functioning autism. Where Grandin’s expertise is in the field of livestock animal behavior, Karen is similarly inspired to make her family’s fishery the first humane tuna fishery on earth.
Readers realize the narrator is differently abled when she describes her feral upbringing, calling herself simply “Me.” After her mother’s death, her compassionate and patient Aunt Isabelle helps her understand and join the world around her. Karen spends time at her family’s fishery, wearing a wetsuit and hanging suspended from a meat hook when the world overwhelms her. When her gift with animals, especially fish, becomes apparent, she undertakes an inspired plan to ensure the success of the fishery, and embarks on a global adventure to assure the humane capture of tuna around the world.
Bottom Line: The author, a prizewinning playwright, creates a compelling character in Karen, who seems more real than fictional. Book Club discussions will be enhanced if members have experiences to share about autism, but the story will be charming and compelling to all readers.
The Yellow Birds: A Novel by Kevin Powers
Little, Brown and Company
The farthest Private Daniel Murphy had ever been from his southwest Virginia home was Fort Benning, Georgia. There, in basic training, was where he met Private John Bartle. Bartle was directed by their sergeant to take Murph under his wing. Just before shipping out to Iraq, Bartle makes a promise to Murph’s mother to bring her son home to her. It’s a promise he knows he can’t keep.
For the next ten months, the soldiers look out for each other while the battle to control Al Tafar rages on. As violence permeates their world, Murph starts to lose touch with reality, and Bartle is haunted by his promise, and soon by his role in Murph’s eventual death.
Bottom line: Book club members who are looking for military hero-worship will be disappointed. Psychological conflict, guilt and violence all come together to form a realistic portrayal of the impossibilities of war and its aftermath.
Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan
Waking up in a strange room in a straightjacket would be anyone’s worst nightmare, but for Susannah Cahalan, it was only the beginning of a terrifying descent into a medical mystery that plagued her for more than half a year. For the previous month, she had been hospitalized, but had no memory of the hallucinations or violent behavior that her medical records detailed. Only weeks before that, she had been a healthy 24-year-old writer starting her career at the New York Post. As her family rallied to her side, she became increasingly paranoid, psychotic and even catatonic. Expensive medical testing showed nothing wrong. Her doctors sought help from “the man you go to when nothing made sense,” Dr. Souhel Najjar, who diagnosed her with a newly discovered autoimmune disorder. With his help, she began her recovery, and was eventually able to write about her brush with madness.
Bottom line: Gripping from the start, Cahalan’s story is engrossing even though the outcome is known. Book club members will find the tale absorbing, and may have medical experiences of their own to discuss.
Familiar: A Novel by J. Robert Lennon
Elisa is staring at the crack on the windshield of her Honda as she drives along Ohio’s Interstate 90. She’s returning from Wisconsin, where her dead son is buried, and returning to her troubled marriage and her living son in New York. The crack in her window disappears, and as it does, her life is suddenly changed. An affair she had been having has never happened, and her son is no longer dead, but instead grown and estranged from her, along with his brother. As she figures out who this version of herself is, she must decide what she wants to do with the second chance at parenting that she appears to have been given.
Bottom Line: A thoughtful and engaging story, Familiar will have book club members debating whether Elisa is in a parallel world, or in the grips of a psychotic episode. Will either world’s circumstances lead to happiness for her or for her family?