I’m sitting in my kitchen listening to the gentle snoring of my pug and looking out over a very green field (watered well by recent rains), Mount Philo rising in the distance through a gauze-like veil of what they say is smoke wafted down from Canada. It is hot. But beautiful.
I have been reading a lot lately and have a few books to recommend.
“If those who have do not give, those who haven’t must take. (A. Sivanandan),” reads the epigraph of Priya Guns’ debut novel “Your Driver Is Waiting.” How I found this book, I have no idea, but I’m glad I did.
“If you’re going to be a driver,” it begins, “you’d better hide at least one weapon in your car. Especially if you’re a driver that looks like me. Not because I’m dashing or handsome, but because I am a woman, of course.”
Damani, the novel’s narrator, is a driver for RideShare. Her father has recently died on the job at a fast-food restaurant — it is his car Damani uses for work — and Damani is left with her mother to care for and support.
They live on what she makes, a small amount the company seems constantly to be chiseling. Ever ready for a fight or any sign of trouble, Damani carries a switchblade in the glove compartment, a tire iron under her seat, pepper spray by her door and a pair of scissors under the mat, “taped down to avoid any sliding.” In the back, along with six bottles of water, are (among other useful items) a wide and varied array of cleaning materials, a baseball bat, a can of antiperspirant and another of spray paint, some condoms, tampons, pads and diapers. Because you never know what is going to happen when you are out there driving for fares.
“All the drivers I’ve ever met say it’s crucial to drive prepared,” says Damani. “Go ahead and ask one. If they tell you there’s not even one weapon hidden in their car, they’re lying. As a driver, you have to protect yourself. Out there in the city, we’re on our own.”
Meanwhile, all around the city are protests. Thousands of them. “Signs and causes melded into a pastiche of demands.” Signs “painted in black, neons, red, and white”: “Black Lives for Palestine,” “The Fight for Climate Change is the Fight Against Capitalism,” “Refugees are People,” “Workers’ Rights for ALL Workers!” But Damani doesn’t have time to protest. She’s too busy driving around, waiting for that ping which signifies a ride, which signifies money, which she and her mother need, badly.
Like so many stories, this one morphs eventually into a romance, which begins unexpectedly when Damani gives a ride to someone named Jolene. At first, Jolene seems the ideal girlfriend. She’s smart, beautiful and there’s an electric chemistry between them. She’s well-connected, a frequent attendee of protests, and an avid supporter of good causes. She’s a white girl with money. Nothing much not to like. But not long into the relationship, Jolene does something unforgiveable that drives the relationship into a deadly spin.
I loved this book, loved the narrator and her savage, edgy way. She’s tough and passionate and a little crazy. This book is super well written. Unusual and original. I highly recommend it. Uber will never be the same again.
A book I have been recommending right and left is Alice Winn’s “In Memoriam.” Maggie O’Farrell, author of “Hamnet” and “The Marriage Portrait” (see below), comments that it’s hard to believe that this is a debut novel, “as it’s so assured, affecting and moving.” I agree.
“In Memoriam” begins at Preshute, an elite English boarding school, with Ellwood (a prefect) sitting on a tile roof of one of the school buildings, fashioning his hands into a gun and shooting at passers-by below, while Gaunt, half-German and not a fan of soldier games, peruses the “In Memoriam” section of the school newspaper. “He had known seven of the nine boys killed,” Winn writes. But The Preshutian assured readers that the two boys recently killed in the war had “died gallant deaths.” “Just like every other Preshute student who had been killed so far in the War.”
Later we learn more about these deaths and what brought them about, learn more about the violent, morbid and unthinkable realities of war — nothing The Preshutian ever came even close to mentioning in its sanitized, sentimentalized “In Memoriam” column.
Winn follows Ellwood and Gaunt from the innocence, safety and comfort of their English boarding school to the World War I battlefield and eventually back to civilian life. I found that often, while reading this novel, I was reminded of scenes from the classic “All Quiet on the Western Front” by Erich Maria Remarque, a German veteran of World War I. First published in 1928, that novel describes the devastating physical and emotional trauma of war, as well as the detachment and isolation German soldiers experienced when they returned home. Similarly, Winn describes in devastating detail the horrors and indignities of war, which contrast boldly with the wide-eyed enthusiasm and jaunty patriotism of the young men who eagerly dove into active duty with no clue what they were in for.
Breathtaking and gut-wrenching, devastating and poetic, this is a must read. The complicated relationship between Gaunt and Ellwood is beautifully rendered, as are many of the other friendships and relationships in this novel. Though dense and at times difficult, this book is a page-turner. Once begun, it’s hard to put down till the bittersweet end. Highly recommend.
Just before I headed out for vacation last week, a friend of mine gave me a book she’d just read and enjoyed, commenting that it was just the thing for the beach. When I had it in hand, I saw that it was by Maggie O’Farrell, author of “Hamnet.” I hadn’t known she had written a new book. A fan of O’Farrell, I was thrilled to throw this one in my suitcase. It didn’t take me long to read. Just ask my kids, who were with me on vacation. They will tell you. I seldom put it down.
Based in 16th century Florence, this “glittering, propulsive new novel” (as Oprah Daily calls it) follows the story of Lucrezia, the third daughter of the grand duke. She’s not the favorite child (she’s a little short of stature, her face is a bit angular and she’s a bit too spirited for her mother’s taste) but she’s a gifted artist, a shrewd, intuitive observer and a bright and independent thinker — qualities that in the 21st century would serve her very well, but that in her day were distinct liabilities. In Italy in the 1500s, women were typically not educated and considered the property of men. For the most part, they were to remain quiet, obedient and unobtrusive … oh, and while bearing as many sons as possible.
Lucrezia has the malignant misfortune of being forced to marry the fiancé of her sister, Maria, who dies suddenly on the eve of her wedding to the dashing young Italian duke, Alfonso. Doesn’t sound so bad? Ha. Just wait. The guy is a psychopath. He comes off as pleasant enough at the outset but read on.
This book is evocative and chilling. At times it almost reads like a horror story, and like “Hamnet,” it’s extremely readable and deftly executed. I love Maggie O’Farrell’s work. She spins a great yarn and has a special ability to open portals for readers to other places, times and ways of being. Though it is painful and not a little infuriating to ponder the burdens and limitations of being born female back in the day, this story is somehow illuminated with resilience and connection. (Wow, it just struck me: if only Lucrezia could meet Damani.) I highly recommend you give this excellent novel a whirl.
I do hope you’re enjoying these summer days. Please give these good books a try. Happy reading.