IF YOU COULD READ MY MIND: An interesting meditation on physical loss and impermanence, and three varying versions of the American Dream, imbibing the Past, the Present, and the Future. These are the four novels reviewed here.
‘An Inventory of Losses’ by Judith Schalansky
Here is a very unique book from Judith Schalansky who is a highly regarded author, book designer, and publisher. In a previous work, she discussed Remote Islands and, once again, her latest deals with remoteness, impermanence, and loss. What she’s done this time is literally make an inventory of losses—of objects, people, and places that have been lost forever and no longer exist, with only whispers and traces to remind us that they were real at some point in time. One reviewer described the book as a Noah’s Ark, preserving what has disappeared, including the dying art of book design. This meditation on loss is written by a citizen of the former GDR (East Germany) so you can imagine how close the subject matter can be to her, a citizen of a nation that no longer exists.
With unbridled curiosity and in possession of a rich sense of irony, Schalansky focuses on such losses as a museum, Greta Garbo, the poems of Sappho, a Roman mansion, the painting of a port, the books of Mani, plus several others. She devotes a chapter each, first stating the facts about that which have now been lost forever then, in a manner that is stylized and often accompanied with soft humor, she writes obliquely about that which is now lost. What’s entertaining is how she adopts a very different style in each chapter. She turns the Garbo chapter, for example, into a fictitious autobiographical jaunt through Manhattan. For the port painting, meanwhile, she offers a travelogue that starts at the source of the River that flows into the port. With Sappho, she offers a compendium of short paragraphs filled with the known facts about Sappho and the misconceptions that have led to her symbolizing lesbianism. An elucidating read.
‘The Great Mistake’ by Jonathan Lee
Andrew Haslett Green is one of those forgotten names in New York lore and yet he was responsible for creating Central Park, and is credited with bringing about the idea of a Greater New York, with Brooklyn and Manhattan evolving into borough status. In 1903, at 83 years of age, right in front of his Park Avenue residence, Haslett Green was gunned down and killed. Jonathan Lee is an Englishman who lives in New York, and in this entertaining feat of historical fiction, he reimagines Haslett Green, exploring his early life, his career, his partnership with Samuel Tilden, and putting together a theory as to why Cornelius Williams, a colored man, would have been driven to shoot down this then influential figure of New York politics.
Single throughout his life, where the euphemism “confirmed bachelor” was bandied about, Haslett Green has a private life that Lee delicately dissects. It becomes a focal point as to why Green was so driven. Then there’s the fascinating character, Bessie Davis, a black woman who lived in a mansion, off the earnings she would make as a prostitute and local Madam. Tilden himself, who once harbored dreams of running for President, is a figure who lives in the shadows of this book but leaves a strong impression. It’s in breathing life into his cast of historical characters and events of the 19th century that Lee excels. You’ll love reading about how Green managed to get the very rich of New York to part with their treasured works of art and loan them to his then fledging Metropolitan Museum of Art.
‘Gold Diggers’ by Sanjena Sathian
This wonderful novel knows how to balance social commentary and satire with rich humor. It spans two continents, takes on both coasts of the US, and details the lives of its protagonists over four epochs. What it does with great warmth and wit is re-evaluate the American Dream, and pose the question of what it means to second and third generation immigrants from Mumbai. As one character, Ramesh Uncle, explores in a library, it’s a journey to discover what it means to be both Indian and American. You’ll love how Neil (2nd generation Indian-American) at first mistakes Ramesh’s interest as one in Native Americans, mistakenly thinking there isn’t enough to study about Asian Indians, given how recently the immigration got started. And yet, Ramesh shows him otherwise.
At the core of the novel is the complicated relationship between Neil and Anita, his neighbor. It’s with Anita and her mother that Neil gets the first whiff of what being a true “gold digger” is all about—and it’s a crazy progression from panning for gold in California. There’s an easy, immediate familiarity to the world that Sathian conjures up in Atlanta, Georgia (at the start of the book), and then in San Francisco some years past a decade after Atlanta. It’s all about family, friendship, and being different in a community that’s highly competitive, is very aspirational, and remains tight-knit while seeking social acceptance and inclusion. How that works, buttering both sides of your toast, is part of the charm of this novel, and offers a unique perspective about being American today.
‘Radio Life’ by Derek B. Miller
Set in the Pacific Northwest in the distant future, this is Derek B. Miller venturing into sci-fi with a post-apocalyptic adventure tale. In his scenario, there are the Keepers and the Commonwealth, at odds with each other. The Archive Runners of the Commonwealth salvage equipment and technology of the distant past, hoping to gain use and knowledge from these objects, while the Keepers reject these objects as the road to repeating the mistakes of the past. There’s a Gone City that’s basically the remains of deserted buildings left standing in what used to be a nearby city of the past. It’s a place where scavengers head to in the hope of finding useful metals or even uncovering knowledge that could be of use. Those of the Commonwealth reside in a Stadium, one that was used for the Summer Olympics in the late 21st century.
It’s against that conjured up future world that we meet Graham and Henry (Henrietta), a married couple who are living heroes of the Commonwealth, and venture out from the Stadium regularly in service to the Commonwealth. Their daughter Alessandra is herself a warrior in training and is asked to rescue a Runner stranded in the Gone City, and who has seemed to have stumbled upon a trove of knowledge, including the internet. Part coming-of-age tale, and part political drama, there’s much to keep one turning the pages of this novel. Miller smartly keeps us invested in the adventure elements, as we trace the events that lead to a stand-off between the ones living in the Stadium and the growing mass of Keepers. The latter accept the Today and death, repudiating any form of technology or progress.