Ten books to read in 2017

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Brad Gooch, Rumi’s Secret (Credit: Credit: Harper)

Brad Gooch, Rumi’s Secret

Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, the medieval Persian poet and Sufi master, is known for his six-book spiritual epic The Masnavi and thousands of other ecstatic poems. In his panoramic biography, Gooch traces Rumi’s steps from Vakhsh, in present day Tajikistan, where he was born in 1207, to Samarkand and to Syria, where Rumi studied at Damascus and Aleppo in his 20s, and to Konya, in Turkey, where Rumi spent the last 50 years of his life. He makes vivid the turmoil of the times – the sieges of Genghis Khan – and the upheaval when Rumi, a traditional Muslim preacher and scholar, met the wandering mystic Shams of Tabriz in 1244. Rumi’s outpouring of poetry began when Shams disappeared three years later. The secret? Gooch translates thus: “Explanations make many things clear/but only love is clear in silence.” (Credit: Harper)

Sheila Kohler, Once We Were Sisters (Credit: Credit: Penguin)

Sheila Kohler, Once We Were Sisters

South African-born novelist Kohler digs into her past for a searing and intimate memoir about love turned deadly. It’s a personal story that has inspired her fiction, including her novels Becoming Jane Eyre and Love Child. She and her sister Maxine were raised on an estate in Johannesburg until her father’s death, then sent to boarding school. Both married and became mothers at a young age. Kohler moved to Paris, then the US; Maxine stayed in South Africa. Kohler sensed her sister’s marriage was difficult. But she was shocked by Maxine’s death in her late 30s when her husband ran the car off the road. When she tried to investigate, she was discouraged by her family. Her powerful story gives a sharp contrast between a sister’s lasting love and the ways society protects a violent man. (Credit: Penguin)

Juan Rulfo, The Golden Cockerel and Other Writings (Credit: Credit: Deep Vellum)

Juan Rulfo, The Golden Cockerel and Other Writings

Mexican master Rulfo’s innovative 1955 novel Pedro Páramo, which influenced Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, has been credited with ushering in ‘the Latin American Boom’ in literature during the 1960s and ‘70s. The Golden Cockerel, Rulfo’s second novel, was originally written in the 1950s as a film script with Marquez and Carlos Fuentes. Rulfo sets his story in the cockfighting rings, cantinas and gambling halls of post-Revolutionary central Mexico. The novel portrays village life as a combination of hardship and celebration. This first English translation by Douglas J Weatherford is being published in collaboration with the Juan Rulfo Foundation in Mexico to honour the 100th anniversary of Rulfo’s birth and kick off a series of international events to reintroduce Rulfo to readers. (Credit: Deep Vellum)

Roxane Gay, Difficult Women (Credit: Grove Press)

Roxane Gay, Difficult Women

Gay brings the powerful voice that flows through her work as a novelist and cultural critic to the 21 short stories in her first collection. Some explore the intimate process of pushing through fear and pain to survival to strength. In I Will Follow You, she writes of two sisters who endure unspeakable abuse in childhood and how they protect each other as adults; in I am a Knife, of a woman whose losses sharpen her. Other stories delve into the nuances of sexual attraction and vulnerability: in La Negra Blanca a mixed-race student putting herself through university as a stripper finds herself the target of a stalker. Gay’s “difficult women” are unforgettable. (Grove Press)

Mohsin Hamid, Exit West (Credit: Credit: Riverhead)

Mohsin Hamid, Exit West

From the Man Booker shortlisted author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist comes a spare novel that speaks to a current global crisis, a “time of migration”. In an unnamed city in an unnamed country, civil war descends. Nadia and Saeed meet as students; violence speeds up their relationship. His mother is killed, Nadia moves into Saeed’s home. His father asks her to see him to safety. They join other refugees, paying for access to mysterious “doors” to safer places. Through one door they arrive on a beach in Mykonos; through another, a London mansion. The accumulation of refugees brings the city to chaos. When Nadia suggests they try a new door, to the city of Marin on the Pacific Coast, a melancholy Saeed agrees. Hamid’s new novel is raw, poetic, and frighteningly prescient. (Credit: Riverhead)

Cara Hoffman, Running (Credit: Credit: Simon & Schuster)

Cara Hoffman, Running

Hoffman’s dark and dynamic new novel is set in Athens in 1988. Three young rebels – Bridey, Jasper and Milo – share the crumbling top floor of a falling-down hotel in the red light district. They get their rooms free and a small fee working as ‘runners’, luring tourists to the low-rent hotel. It seems a carefree life, but there are downsides: robberies, beatings, hunger. When Irish-born Declan moves in, it becomes clear he’s trained to kill. “Fearing Declan was like fearing the air,” Bridey muses. Hoffman unwinds her precisely calibrated plot through shifting narratives – Bridey in the 1980s, Milo in the present day – resulting in an unsettling and scintillating novel. (Credit: Simon & Schuster)

Elizabeth Strout, Anything Is Possible (Credit: Credit: Random House)

Elizabeth Strout, Anything Is Possible

Key characters mentioned in Strout’s best-selling novel My Name Is Lucy Barton are central to this companion novel-in-stories set in Lucy’s hometown, Amgash, Illinois. There’s Tommy, the high school janitor, who senses Lucy’s vulnerability and revels in her later success as a writer. Some of Lucy’s classmates stay (one becomes a guidance counselor). Others move on – Carol, who was mean to her, shows up at her book signing in Houston to say she’s “proud”. Seventeen years after leaving home, Lucy comes back to Amgash for an impromptu visit to brother Paul and her sister Vicky – an afternoon that leaves all three siblings shaken. Strout’s clear-sighted, deft stories are shot through with unexpected moments of truth. (Credit: Random House)

Richard Ford, Between Them (Credit: Credit: Ecco)

Richard Ford, Between Them

Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Ford offers remembrances of his father and mother in this elegantly written and thoughtful memoir. He recalls his father Parker, a traveling salesman with a “leaning-forward sweetness”, and his mother, pretty, lively, irreverent Edna, who was on the road with his dad for 15 years, until she became pregnant with their only child. Parker has his first heart attack at 43, and is gone by the time Ford is in his teens, leaving the son to speculate that he’d never become a writer had his father survived and shaped his life. “I was one person, raised by two very different people,” he writes, “each with a separate perspective to impress upon me…” It’s a wistful, wise and loving portrait. (Credit: Ecco)

Min Jin Lee, Pachinko (Credit: Credit: Grand Central)

Min Jin Lee, Pachinko

This immersive novel follows four generations of a Korean family from 1910, when Japan annexed Korea, through most of the 20th Century. An aging fisherman and his wife run a boarding house in a village near the port city of Busan. Their only surviving son, who has a cleft palate and twisted foot, is married at last. When his teenage daughter Sunja becomes pregnant by a visiting businessman, a kind pastor marries her and takes her to Osaka. After he dies, Sunja’s grit and hard work keep the family afloat during the tough war years. Her elder son makes it into Waseda University. Her younger son thrives by running pachinko parlours, where gamblers play machines in a game similar to pinball. But their future is shadowed by past secrets and betrayals. (Credit: Grand Central)

Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Refugees (Credit: Credit: Grove Press)

Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Refugees

The Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist (The Sympathizer) sets most of the stories in his first collection in the Vietnamese immigrant communities in California. A ghost writer brutalized during her family’s escape from Vietnam by boat is visited by the spectre of the brother who tried to protect her. A schoolboy whose parents run the New Saigon Market in San Jose witnesses his mother’s struggle to put the past behind her. A professor and his wife who made it to safety by boat decades earlier are caught in a web of confusion as she realizes his mind is wandering – he calls her by another woman’s name – while he writes in his journal, “she may not know who she is anymore.” Nguyen’s characters are haunted by the past, struggling to envision a future. (Credit: Grove Press)

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