This was chosen as a lock-down read when we were all yearning for a taste of ‘normal’. At over 600 pages you need to invest some time to pick up Curtis Sittenfeld’s ‘American Wife’ but it was warmly received in the Den as the perfect Missed Opportunity especially as it’s election year in the USA. Plus Sittenfeld is about to release her new novel ‘Rodham’.
‘American Wife’ is a word-of-mouth bestseller about the marriage of an American First Lady who we believe is Laura Bush, wife of Republican George W Bush.
'My favourite book of the year' - Kate Atkinson.
On one of the most important days of her husband's presidency, liberal leaning Alice Blackwell considers the strange and unlikely path that has led them to the White House, and that has landed an ordinary girl from a small town into the most public of roles. Weaving race, class, wealth and fate into a brilliant literary reimagining of the life of a reserved woman not unlike Laura Bush, American Wife is a remarkable novel that lays bare the pressures and contradictions of a marriage exposed in the global spotlight.
The Den enjoyed comparing this fictional novel with Michelle Obama’s much acclaimed memoir ‘Becoming’. Some found the length wearisome, whilst others felt we really could reimagine a human face behind the First Lady’s back-story because we had invested in her narrative. The length was worth it!
With the forthcoming release of ‘Rodham’, that reimagines Hilary Clinton’s life if she had not married Bill Clinton and the effects on politics, we feel certain this will be a novel worth reading in your Den.
This is a funny, poignant debut novel about parenting, racism and class. Reid’s writing has a fresh and insightful quality which exposes these issues with humour and truthfulness.
Alix has recently and reluctantly moved from her high profile, social media life as a feminist blogger in New York to Pennsylvania with her news presenter husband and two young girls. She employs Emira, a young black girl with seemingly little purpose in her life, as her sitter who forms a close bond with the eldest daughter Briar. One night when Alix has an emergency she calls on Emira to help out.
Emira collects Briar and takes her to their late-night supermarket where she is confronted by the security guard for kidnapping the “white baby.” An eyewitness films the incident and emails the footage to a reluctant Emira saying she could use it to her advantage. Alix, feeling guilty about Emira’s treatment, tries to make things up to her, but the more she tries, the more she seems to misunderstand Emira. When the two of them discover a shared connection through Kelly, which results in an excruciating Thanksgiving Dinner and impulsive confrontation, everything quickly unravels.
Reid carefully nuances the racism, subtleing condemning the likes of Alix and Kelly’s behaviour whilst at the same time recognising their willingness to try to empathise and understand Emira. The message of trying to force your own aspirations on someone else is both hilarious and heart-breaking and underneath it all, is the faultless love and strong bond Emira has with Briar. Briar was perhaps the Den’s favourite character. Reid captures this slightly difficult, eccentric, extremely inquisitive and exhausting child who because she doesn’t necessarily fit in with Alix’s life and image is overlooked by her mother, but unconditionally loved and cared for by Emira.
Overall, the characters, particularly Alix, are rather too stereotypical, which is a shame, as the book would have been even more powerful if we could feel greater empathy with all the characters. But the dialogue is quick witted and Reid touches on these important issues without forcing the message.
We always love it when other book clubs recommend us one of their top reads, and this book came highly recommended by another Den club. It tells the true story of a young man’s remarkable and unique experiences as a spy for the Allies during German’s occupation of Italy so is a timely choice as it coincides with the 75th anniversary of VE Day this month.
Giuseppe “Pino” Lella lives in Milan where his family run a successful leather business and live a comfortable middle class life. It is not until he is aged 17 that Germany's occupation of Italy truly affects Milan. Initially Pino is sent away by his parents to escape the danger and live in the Alps under the care of Father Re at Casa Alpina. Under his guidance he uses his knowledge of the Alps to help Jews escape across the border into Switzerland. However when Pino is about to turn 18, to save him going to the front line, his parents persuade him to return to Milan and enlist with the Germans for the Organization Todt.
A chance encounter with General Leyers results in him unexpectedly becoming Leyers’s driver. General Leyers was the Plenipotentiary to the Reich Minister for Armaments and War Production in Italy, who had the power to do whatever was necessary for the sake of the Nazi war machine working with the full authority of Albert Speer and reporting directly to Hitler. Pino’s uncle can’t believe this stroke of luck and tells Pino he must be their spy. From this point on, Pino, who is party to several key meetings with Moussilini, Colonel Walter Rauff and Cardinal Schuster reports back on what he sees and learns.
The story follows Pino’s life, as he serves under General Leyers right through until the end of the war. He witnesses horrors, death, shame, but at the same time finds precious moments of love and happiness. It is a moving, heart-breaking and almost unbelievable account of a young man’s experience of war.
A film of this book is planned in the future starring Tom Holland so a good book club choice.
As we all seem to be kicking into survival mode and rationing our food, it seems highly appropriate that our missed opportunity should be The Salt Path, a couple’s true tale of survival when they unexpectedly find themselves homeless and penniless in their fifties. It is a unique story of change, hope and fresh beginnings.
Following a bad business investment, Ray and Moth (it does take a while to get used to his name!) lose their beautiful farm in Wales. Moth is also diagnosed with a terminal degenerative disease and is for the most part in excruciating pain. With everything lost, they make the remarkable decision to walk the 630 mile South West Coastal Path.
Living wild, they endure the heat, storms, hunger, all set against the stunning backdrop of this unique coastline, much of which will be familiar to many of us. The book is honestly written as Ray has time to contemplate, reflect and reassess their lives. Living on a diet of noodles, pasties, fudge and making a cup of tea in a pub last all evening, they encounter both hostility and random acts of kindness along the way. More importantly, through the healing power of nature they enjoy a renewed strength of love for each other.
This book did divide the Den. Whilst some of us saw it as a remarkable achievement of survival against the odds, others were frustrated by some of their actions and questioned how such a grounded couple would have ended up homeless, without any support from family or friends and how their choices resulted in their misfortune of circumstance.
Shortlisted for both the 2018 Costa Award and The Wainwright Book Prize. Raynor Winn’s second book The Wild Silence is due for release later this year.
We all definitely need some light-hearted relief during these difficult times, so the Den has chosen The Cactus this month for just that reason. If you enjoyed Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine and/or The Rosie Project, then we are sure you will enjoy this entertaining and delightful story about a quirky misfit by Sarah Haywood.
Susan Green leads a seemingly perfect, well ordered life living in a small flat in South London working for the civil service. This is unexpectedly thrown into confusion and turmoil when her mother suddenly dies and she discovers she is pregnant aged 45. Whilst she tries to keep order and maintain routine into her ever unravelling life, it becomes clear she will have to adapt and emotionally let go.
Susan is exasperating in her 'controlling' traits, direct in her no-nonsense approach to life and has an immense dislike for people not so ordered who celebrate life, occasions and everyday frivolities. She particularly dislikes her younger brother Edward who she sees as a needy ‘waste of space’ who, she always believed, was disproportionally favoured by their mother. Required to communicate with him over their mother’s will only highlights this difficult relationship. Combined with her unanticipated pregnancy, Susan is forced to spend more time with family members including her over-bearing but well-intentioned Aunt Sylvia.
Susan learns to accept help from outsiders including her neighbour Kate and Edward’s friend Rob. As well as insights into her troubled upbringing, we begin to learn that this self-contained front is perhaps not as strong as it appears as self-doubt and emotion creep into her very core – and - just like her unforeseen pregnancy, so Susan starts to bloom!
A fun, warm and moving portrayal of life with a few unexpected twists along the way – the Den is sure you will find this a welcome respite during these isolating times.