One of the perks of working at the library is when our patrons share what they are reading with us.
Henry, Himself by Stewart O’Nan is a beautifully written prequel to his earlier novels, Wish You Were Here and Emily, Alone. In Emily Alone, we meet Emily Maxwell, newly widowed and adjusting to life without Henry. In this current novel, we get a chance to walk with Henry, a seventy-five year old retired Pittsburgher, through the rhythm of an ordinary year in the life of an ordinary man. There are no heart pounding scenes, no cliff hangers to be found here, just the steady beat of someone living out his final years to the best of his abilities. Henry’s character will resonate with many who may recognize their own fathers, grandfathers, or husbands in him, men who worked hard at their jobs or careers and in their homes, making a better life for their families. Henry, like many men of his era, possess a fierce love for his family and willingly sacrifices his own wants and desires for what he perceives as a good life. Like so many men of his time, Henry isn’t comfortable with expressing his love with words and he struggles to understand his children and their life choices, but his love is always there, quiet, steadfast and enduring. While Henry reminisces and may long for times past, he nevertheless soldiers on and tries his best to adjust to changing times.
It is in the relationship between Henry and Emily, married for forty-nine years, where O’Nan’s writing truly shines. We witness time and time again, without sentimentality or preaching, what it takes to stay faithful and committed in a marriage. The give and take, the finishing each other’s sentences, the need for physical space apart (the kitchen is strictly Emily’s domain; the basement workshop, Henry’s) make these characters feel like they live right next door. Or maybe that is because of the many references to Pittsburgh. You get to ride the Incline up to Mount Washington for the Maxwell’s Valentine’s Day dinner, attend a funeral at St. Paul’s Cathedral in Oakland, and make a few trips to the Giant Eagle (actually referred to as the Jyggle more than once) in East Liberty. Though local in flavor, the message is far reaching. Aging is inevitable, but life and how you live it at any stage, is up to you.
Here’s a potpourri of other titles you may enjoy during social distancing:
Similar in theme to the above pick, Akin by Emma Donoghue brings us the story of Noah Selvaggio, a retired New York City professor and recent widower. Heartbreaking circumstances require that Noah take his eleven year old street-smart great nephew, whom he has never met, on his much anticipated trip to the French Riviera, to delve into his family’s history. The two generations struggle mightily to form a bond against the backdrop of quaint French towns and hidden family secrets.
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro is a great read if you’re feeling confined by the quarantine. You’ll empathize with the students at Hailsham, a lovely boarding school in an idyllic country setting. While the school seems to provide the students with an ideal education tailored to each individual, a few students get restless with the constraints placed on them and start exploring outside their school walls. What ensues will leave you with memories of this novel and many points to ponder long after you turn the last page. If you are not in the mood for contemplation, let this one wait until later.
For a quick read, you may enjoy My Sister, The Serial Killer, by Oyinkan Braithwaite. Part mystery, part satire, part character study, this delicious book set in Nigeria can be devoured in one sitting. It takes the bonds between sisters to a whole new level.
For anyone you may have missed it, A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles is a personal favorite. If you have to live out your life under house arrest, you may as well do it in style! Follow the story of Count Alexander Rostov, aristocrat and all around true gentleman, as he is sequestered at the Metropol Hotel in Russia beginning in the 1920s. This would make a great movie!
Non- fiction fans who enjoy delving into social issues should read Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond. Especially timely now, this book is an education into issues of affordable housing, fair pay, and homelessness. The real life struggles of ordinary people, renters and building owners, trying to get by and get ahead, are eye and heart openers.
While it may be hard to currently sympathize with the self imposed social distancing of the agoraphobic protagonist in Where’d You Go Bernadette by Maria Semple, this book is an entertaining read. While poking fun at suburban social climbing and over achievers in Silicon Valley, it also lays bare the lengths a parent is willing to go for a shot at their child’s happiness.
Written 5/15/20 by Diane