There are Lit Fests taking place all over the country, but the community of readers is dwindling. Still, passionate book lovers would like to know what others like themselves are reading. This Book Nook suggests some books, but would also like to connect with serious readers, or even casual airport book browsers. Do write in about books you have loved or hated and why. The best entries will be shared on this page. Please send your recommendations to [email protected]
Black Sheep Saga
There is something universal about The Nest, Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s debut novel about siblings at war. It can be assumed with a great degree of accuracy, that where money is involved, people anywhere in the world will behave exactly in the same way; unless there are saintly, which the Plumbs are not.
When the book opens, a drunk and stoned Leo Plumb seduces a young Hispanic waitress Matilda Rodriguez with promises of promoting her music career. The car they are making out in, meets with an accident, Leo is badly hurt, and the girl loses a foot. Leo’s mother Francie, pays a huge sum to cover Matilda’s treatment, silence the Rodriguez family and save the Plumb name from being blackened. Trouble is the money she uses is the trust fund of the Plumb siblings, which, according to her husband’s will, is meant to be given to them when he youngest, Melody, turns forty.
Leonard Plumb senior was a self made millionaire and assumed his kids would be successful too. However, it turns out that all of them are in financial trouble and have been hoping that the nest egg, which is referred to by them as The Nest, will bail them out.
Jack, who runs a business in antiques, is almost bankrupt and has kept the business afloat by borrowing against property, he and his partner, Walker, own. Bea works with a small literary journal run by the idealistic Paul, but it barely pays enough; Melody needs money for her twin daughters’ college fee, or she and her husband Walt will have to sell their home. They are all shocked to find The Nest depleted to save the skin of the black sheep Leo, whose shenanigans leave him with an expensive divorce to deal with and an unemployable status.
With sympathy and humour, D’Aprix Sweeney, follows the lives of the Plumb family and those who love or are loved by them. Homeless and broke Leo crashes with a former girfriend, Stephanie, and hopes to rebuild his life, even though he has an escape route planned. One of Melody’s daughters, Nora, finds herself attracted to a girl called Simone. The homosexuality of Jack and Nora is portrayed without any drama. The Plumb family is progressive that way, even though they are walking through financial and romantic minefields.
A shadow of 9/11 falls over the Matilda part of the story, which is an interesting though not crucial subplot.
D’Aprix Sweeney stays away from dark humour that tends to come easily when dysfunctional families are involved, she never judges her characters, not even the feckless Leo. If he weren’t such a wrecking ball for everyone he comes in contact with, he would have been a source of entertainment for the family—everyone has one charming relative who never grows up.
By Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney
Excerpt of The Nest
In the powder room, Bea washed her hands and found an old lipstick in the corner of her purse. She carefully applied the color, checking to make sure none of it was on her teeth. She used her dampened fingers to calm the hair around her face that had frizzed under her winter hat. She moved as slowly as possible, trying to remember where her coat had been ferried off to and the most direct route to the front door. She eyed a glass shelf housing an impressive collection of tiny antique perfume bottles. Really? she thought. Where do people get the time? (And then: Who am I kidding? I have the time.) Someone rapped gently on the door.
“Hold on,” she said. She squared her shoulders, happy that she’d worn her favorite zebra-print wrap dress from her favorite secondhand clothing store. She took a deep breath and opened the door. Maybe Lena wouldn’t even recognize her, she thought, as she walked into the front hall. But the moment she emerged from the tiny powder room, Lena pounced, squealing and pulling Bea into an alarmingly fierce hug. “I heard you were here, but I didn’t believe it!” she said, rocking Bea a little as if they’d just been reunited after a lengthy, involuntary separation.
The Glitterary Girls were just an invention of some journalist for an urban magazine. Bea had been horrified when the article came out, which made them sound like silly socialites. (“Perched on a Soho rooftop on a languid summer night, the most buzzed about writers in Manhattan glitter like beads on a particularly smart necklace.”) The breathless writing was awful, the designation didn’t even make sense, a meaningless phrase assigned to a group of female writers who happened to live in New York City at the same time, happened to be around the same age, and, for the most part, disliked one another. At best, they were grudging acquaintances bound by a name they all wished they could shake—except for Lena, who had adored the catchphrase and taken it literally. (Gliterally, Bea had joked to the one woman in the group she actually liked, a poet from Hoboken who had also seemed to drop off the face of the earth in the ensuing years.) Back then, Lena was always trying to gather “the girls,” for drinks or dinners or suggesting they go to events together, as if they were a lounge act in Vegas.
“You look exactly the same!” Lena held Bea at arm’s length and gushed. “Come sit and talk to me.” She clapped her hands, and her bared cleavage bounced a little. Had she bought herself new breasts, too? Bea didn’t remember Lena ever being voluptuous. They sat in a quiet corner of the dining room next to an enormous table covered with trays of meticulously made canapés. Bea positioned herself with her back to the room and steeled herself for Lena’s interrogation only to realize, within minutes, that of course Lena wanted to talk about Lena.
“Here she is,” she said, handing Bea her phone and swiping through what seemed like hundreds and hundreds of photos of her daughter. “She’s three. I finished the edits on mylast book on a Wednesdaymorning, e-mailed the pages to my editor, stood up from my desk, and my water broke.”
“You were always really efficient,” Bea said.
“What’s her name?” Bea asked, looking at the photo of a little girl with a party hat sitting in front of a birthday cupcake.
“Patience?” Bea wasn’t sure she’d heard properly.
“Oh, you know,” Lena said, as if it were obvious, “one of those old family Mayflower names.”
“Have you been adopted by a new family?” Bea knew Lena had grown up in a trailer park somewhere in central Ohio with a single mother who managed to raise four kids working a variety of minimum-wage jobs. You had to listen closely these days to hear any echo of the broad and nasal midwestern vowels in Lena’s speech, and her unruly black hair had been straightened, and somewhere along the line Nowaski had become Novak—and there were those new impressive breasts—but there was no way Lena’s round and freckled face with the slightly bulbous nose that looked like it had been raised on kielbasa had anything to do with the Mayflower.
“My ridiculous husband,” Lena said, her voice full of admiration. “He’s in the blue book.”
It’s surprising that French author Michel Houellebecq wrote a novel like Submission in these communally fraught times. According to reports, a little after the French original was released, the attack on the office of Charlie Hedbo took place, that resulted in the murder of twelve people. Laurent Joffrin, editor ofLibération, wrote that Submission “will mark the date in history when the ideas of the far right made a grand return to serious French literature,” and armed guards were placed at the offices of Houellebecq’s publishers.
Submission is set in 2022, and seen through the eyes of forty-four year old François, a lecturer at the New Sorbonne University and an expert on nineteenth-century author J. K. Huysmans. Francois is bored with his solitary, aimless life of routine teaching and casual seductions.
It’s election season and the political grapevine issues dire warnings. The Jewish parents of his current lover, furtively move to Israel. Then, much to the shock of the French liberal intellectuals, in an alliance with the Socialists, an Islamic party sweeps to power, with the seemingly moderate Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed Ben Abbes, taking over reins of the country. Islamic law comes into force, women are veiled and pushed out of the job market. Polygamy is encouraged and generous inducements – money and multiple wives—offered to academics who convert to Islam.
The novel is both satirical and cautionary, targeting with sharp barbs both the politically naïve French natives as well as a Muslim leader with ambitions of creating a unified Europe to include Islamic countries like Morocco, Turkey and Tunisia and later Lebanon and Egypt. Francois, with his physical ailments and religious confusion, is just a pathetic gnat amidst this huge historical upheaval.
The book could be a contender for the bad sex award, but otherwise it an absorbing and discomfiting read. Mainly because it could prove to be prophetic.
By Michel Houellebecq
(Translated from the French by Lorin Stein)
Published by William Heinemann
Excerpt of Submission
We continue to use to with our ex-girlfriends, that’s the custom, but we kiss them on the cheeks and not the lips. Myriam wore a short black skirt and black tights. I’d invited her to my place. I didn’t really want to go to a restaurant. She had an inquisitive look around the room and sat back on the sofa. Her skirt really was extremely short and she’d put on makeup. I offered her a drink. Bourbon, she said, if you have it.
“Something’s different…” She took a sip. “But I can’t tell what.”
“The curtains.” I had installed double drapes, orange and ocher with a vaguely ethnic motif. I’d also bought a throw for the couch.
She turned around, kneeling on the sofa to examine the curtains. “Pretty,” she decided. “Very pretty, actually. But then, you always did have good taste—for such a macho man.” She turned to face me. “You don’t mind me calling you macho, do you?”
“I don’t know, I guess I must be kind of macho. I’ve never really been convinced that it was a good idea for women to get the vote, study the same things as men, go into the same professions, et cetera. I mean, we’re used to it now—but was it really a good idea?”
Her eyes narrowed in surprise. For a few seconds she actually seemed to be thinking it over, and suddenly I was too, for a moment. Then I realized I had no answer, to this question or any other.
“So you’re for a return to patriarchy?”
“You know I’m not for anything, but at least patriarchy existed. I mean, as a social system it was able to perpetuate itself. There were families with children, and most of them had children. In other words, it worked, whereas now there aren’t enough children, so we’re finished.”