OLD GEMS, NEW TRENDS
by Melinda Powers
The old has been made new again. I know, it always happens, but this time, it’s hitting closer to my heart, and while I enjoy the return of many fashions (hello, baggy denim overalls) and the resurgence of many books (ah yes, A Little Life), I can’t help thinking about what I’d like to see back in the spotlight. In the book world, one loves nothing more than seeing older titles find new audiences, and so I submit to you some of my candidates for a must-read revival.
The only way for me to start is with The History of Love by Nicole Krauss, one of my favorite novels. For me, it has all the goods: It is beautifully written, emotionally heart wrenching, and delightful in its characters. Through the interwoven narratives of octogenarian Leo Gursky, a Jewish immigrant who fled Poland during WWII, and Alma, an inquisitive young girl trying to ease her mother’s grief, Krauss tells a love story, a mystery, and an ode to the connective power of books.
Another novel with literature at its heart is Carlos Luis Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind, which to my mind is one that can be given to anyone, it is both easily consumable and all-consuming. Set in mid-20th-century Barcelona, it begins with a boy finding a rare book by a mysterious author in a secret library, and moves propulsively from there. Full of narrative drive and atmosphere, with touches of history, magical realism, and suspense, Zafón’s first in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books series is timeless storytelling.
Likewise are Amy Tan’s novels, all of which explore family relationships and Chinese American experiences. The Hundred Secret Senses is a story about sisters, straddling cultures, and accepting one’s self. Oh, and of love and the spirit world. It’s the story of biracial American-born Olivia and her much older Chinese half-sister Kwan, and how their relationship forces Olivia to embrace both sides of her family’s history, vividly and sumptuously told.
Sula by Toni Morrison is another powerful novel about women’s relationships, this time between childhood friends. Featuring Sula, Nel, and their hometown of the Bottom, a Black community threatened by an incoming golf course, this slim but mighty novel published in 1973 explores the constructs of good and evil, its contradictions and intersections with gender, race, and class. Vibrant and visceral, Sula begs to be reread and reconsidered, both immediately upon finishing and as we ourselves age through our friendships.
Sandra Cisneros’s Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories also speaks to women’s experiences, this time along the Mexico-US border and in the spaces between the two cultures. This collection is smart, singular in voice, and lively in form. A poet in everything she writes, Cisneros crafts short, stunning pieces that tap into youth and mythology, womanhood, struggle and strength, each exploring the hybridity of Mexican American culture.
It goes without saying that Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry also plays in the American West. Set after the Civil War and ranging from Texas to Montana, this is the story of two former Texas Rangers, those they encounter, and perhaps one last cattle drive. But this epic reads more universal than “just a Western” novel. This is Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Frodo and Sam, it’s humanity at large. A sprawling adventure tale that is as observant as it is well-paced, Lonesome Dove is plain good storytelling that has equally pleased a wide variety of readers in my life.
Another book I must recommend to anyone and everyone is The Keep by Jennifer Egan, though I have difficulty explaining exactly what it is, other than exceptional. Somewhere in Eastern Europe, an old castle is being restored by two cousins with a damaged past, but then there is also this thing with an inmate and his teacher in a prison creative writing class. These storylines blend in remarkable ways. The best part: Egan writes with equal parts genius and heart, which makes for an intellectually trailblazing and compassionate read.
Finally, there is no better way to end than with The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje, a gorgeous novel of four people who find themselves in an abandoned Italian villa at the end of WWII, each seeking convalescence and connection. Written in Ondaatje’s stunning prose, the story involves love, mystery, drama, and a contemplation on identity and allegiance when borders are obscured. Years later, my mind is still invigorated by this incredible book, and my heart still holds its resonance.
So there you have it, my candidates for your consideration. Perhaps you’ve already read them, but admit it, it’s likely been awhile, and now is a great time to revisit them or gift them to friends and family. And if you haven’t experienced them yet, you’re in for a treat. Maybe together we can set the next trend.
Melinda Powers is the head book buyer at Bookshop Santa Cruz and the board president of the California Independent Booksellers Alliance.