Book clubs: Almost famous
The Strays, Emily Bitto’s hypnotic debut novel, is the story of four girlfriends who come of age in 1930s Australia. Sisters Eva, Beatrice and Heloise are the daughters of controversial painter Evan Trentham. Their new friend, Lily, is in awe of the family. She’s bewitched by the artists who inhabit the Trenthams’ circle, their cultured ways and their communal approach to life in the face of straitlaced Australian society. Longing to join the Trentham clan, Lily becomes close to Eva, who possesses a sophistication beyond her teenage years, and the two hover on the margins of the grownups’ world, smoking, drinking and learning more than they should about the habits of artists. But the more time Lily spends with the family, the more she comes to realize that the freewheeling bohemian facade they display hides a world of trouble. Bitto explores friendship, family and the nature of creativity in this remarkably assured first novel. Filled with a luminous sense of yearning and loss, it’s a compelling snapshot of a bygone era.
Legendary journalist and author Joan Didion shares new material from notebooks she kept in the 1970s in South and West: From a Notebook. One section is drawn from a journal documenting a 1970 trip the author made with John Gregory Dunne, her late husband, through Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama, and features Didion’s interviews with regional notables, including author Walker Percy. It captures the unsettled tenor of the times, with insights on race and history that will strike a chord with readers. This is classic Didion, and her sly observations are enlivened by her wonderfully sensitive intelligence. The book also includes a section of Didion’s reflections on her home state of California and the 1976 trial of Patty Hearst. Didion’s many fans will find much to enjoy in this work from one of our most inimitable authors.
TOP PICK FOR BOOK CLUBS
Acclaimed author Viet Thanh Nguyen follows up his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Sympathizer (2015), with an electrifying collection of short stories. In The Refugees, Nguyen uses the Vietnamese enclaves of California as the backdrop for narratives that examine the nature of the émigré experience. The narrator of “Black-Eyed Woman” encounters the ghost of her brother, who died while attempting to rescue her from pirates during an escape from the Vietcong. In “The Other Man,” Liem, newly arrived in America, is stunned to learn that his new roommates are gay. “The War Years” is the chronicle of a clan of Vietnamese merchants who are pressured by a group of fellow refugees into giving money to support dissidents fighting in Vietnam. As a whole, this beautifully executed collection serves as a powerful consideration of the meaning of home and the importance of human connection. In probing the lives and circumstances of Vietnamese-Americans, Nguyen has produced stories that will resonate with a wide range of readers, regardless of background.