Summer Reading: a few cryptic reviews (no spoilers!)

Every summer I go in search of a book I can fall in love with.  A book that will capture my imagination with poetic language, fascinating characters, and a compelling story.  A book I can’t put down.

As the weather warmed, and I became too lazy to get off the couch, the first book I picked up wasThe Old Drift, a brand new work by first time novelist, Namwali Serpell.  It takes place in Africa, primarily in Zambia where Serpell was born.  I’ve read she moved here to the United States with her parents as a child.  She now teaches literature at UC Berkeley.

The Old Drift has everything I was looking for—the people, the descriptions, the mythic-worthy story—but I just couldn’t fall in love with it.  I wanted to fall in love, but I didn’t.  I mean, it’s a great book, a multi-generational saga that begins as historical fiction, morphs into magical realism, finally completes its wild journey with a sci fi explosive splash.  It’s amazing, but I just couldn’t get drawn in—well, not till the final section.  It’s my own fault.  That’s right, Old Drift, it’s not you, it’s me. I found the story to be disjointed. It was too easy for me to put this heavy hard-back down for a day or two.  When you’re looking for love, that kind of wandering eye, won’t do.

The Old Drift tells the story of three families:  first the grandmothers, then the mothers, and finally the present-day (and future) children.  Each section is engrossing, but each could stand alone—at least until the end.  Suddenly everything entwines.  In the meantime, what holds it all together is a Greek-Chorus-like narration by a swarm of mosquitos.  Yes, you read that right.  Trust me, it’s brilliant!  These mosquitos are insightful, and at the end, they will shock you!  Oh, you really do need to read this book.  Okay, maybe I did fall in love with it a little, especially with the grandmothers.  But that’s all I’ll say.

Wait, one more thing. After reading the book, I went seeking reviews, as I often do, to deepen my understanding.  I read insightful pieces by Salman Rushdie and by the New York Times’ Dwight Garner.  A line from Garner’s review didn’t hit me till later.  He wrote, “This book is intensely concerned with women’s bodies.” Immediately I thought, huh, I didn’t notice.  Later I realized, well of course I didn’t notice.  A leitmotif to a man is everyday life to us women.  Blood and hair:  two of our main preoccupations.  And yet, I have to say, thanks for the affirmation.  It’s good to see our experience reflected and respected in a major new piece of literature.

So, finally, yes, I do recommend this book!  You may fall in love, you may not.  But this book is going to be talked and written about for decades, maybe more.  Join in now.

Moving on, I stayed with magical realism when I reached for the next book on deck, Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel. I recently read The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake (see my review, May 30, 2019,  When I saw reviewers draw comparisons between these two books, I decided to give the story a second chance.  I say a second chance, even though I’d never read the book, because I was the only woman I know who didn’t like the movie when it landed in local art house theaters back in 1992.  The book and movie both are beautiful, lush in color, sensory details, and magical twists in plot. Admittedly I love that.  But being a bit of a misfit myself, I sympathized with the wrong character. Clearly the reader (or viewer) is intended to find the oldest sister to be an unlikeable and comic figure, but I felt sorry for her.  Reading this now in the MeToo era, my feelings are reaffirmed.  I’ve never much cared for stories that pit women against each other, particularly when they’re vying for the attention of a man.  Pedro, the man in question, well—my first impulse is to say he’s a monster, but the more compassionate side of me says all the characters are doing the best they can in a misogynistic culture.  The mother of the sisters is an abusive narcissist, but we discover late in the story that she has been a victim too.  In contrast, the middle sister in both movie and book is a delight, the personification of freedom and self-discovery, though even in that there is a bit of a racist stereotype.  (Okay, one spoiler!)  It is revealed that she has a different father than the other sisters. And guess what:  her father was black.  That she is the sister unashamed to indulge her appetites—well, enough said.

But hey, I did finally fall in love with Alice Hoffman’s Red Garden.  This book was an unexpected treat since it’s not my favorite form—a set of interlocking short stories.  Each tale takes place in the Massachusetts town of Blackwell, beginning with the settlement’s founding families in 1750.

The Bradys, Motts, Starrs, and Partridges wouldn’t have made it through the first harsh winter were it not for Hallie Brady’s symbiotic relationship with a hibernating Mama bear and her one surviving cub.  Bears continue to be a magical presence in the book, as do ghosts of past ancestors. Each story moves the town forward in time, and we recognize names of those who have gone before.  Perhaps the main character in this chapter is the niece or the grandson of the protagonist in the previous tale.  Each chapter is satisfying without sharp resolutions, each with a haunting mystical edge.  Just a lovely book to while away a summer’s afternoon.

So now my heart is open, and summer is only beginning!  I’m looking for my next summer love.  Suggestions?





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