One for the Books: Literary novels make great summer reading

There’s some fabulous fiction available right now, featuring strong characters. These three books are of solid literary quality, and once you pick one up, you won’t want to put it down.

“James” by Percival Everett is a reimagining of Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” from the point of view of the slave Jim. This book is wonderful. Wonderful! It’s one of my new favorites.

When Jim learns his owner is about to sell him and split up his family, he runs away, planning to hide out for a while on a nearby uninhabited island on the Mississippi River. There he’s joined by Huck Finn, who’s running away from his abusive father. The two have adventures and have to deal with weather, river currents, a rattlesnake, and despicable humans.

The joke is that Jim is highly intelligent. He’s secretly read quite a few books and has “imagined conversations with Voltaire, Rousseau and Locke.” Jim (as well as the other slaves) speaks well, but with white people — even Huck — he talks in slave-speak, because white people expect it. “It always pays to give white folks what they want,” Jim says. “White folks expect us to sound a certain way and it can only help if we don’t disappoint them.” He teaches his children some of the rules: “Don’t make eye contact. … Never speak first. … Mumble sometimes so they can have the satisfaction of telling you not to mumble. … They enjoy … thinking you’re stupid.”

Being a slave takes a heavy toll on the spirit, he says. “Waiting is a big part of a slave’s life, waiting and waiting to wait some more.” Even Huck, whom he considers a sort-of friend, hurts him. “Those two white boys, Huck and Tom, … were always playing some kind of pretending game where I was … their toy.”

This is an exciting, sometimes harrowing adventure tale in which Jim meets fellow slaves, con men, slave hunters, and musicians. I laughed out loud more than once. But prepare for some violence. And, like the Mark Twain book, this one has the occasional cringeworthy use of the “N” word. But it’s a marvelous, fun read. It gets my highest recommendation.

“Table for Two” by Amor Towles contains six short stories related to New York and a novella set in Los Angeles. Towles is an impressive writer whose works include “The Lincoln Highway” and “A Gentleman in Moscow” — superb stuff, and this is no exception. Towles is a fine observer of human nature, which comes through in his clever stories.

Briefly, here are the stories: (1) Near Moscow in the early 1900s, Pushkin lives with his patriotic wife in the new Communist state, and he rather passively takes advantage of it; (2) a forger works with a bookstore owner; (3) everybody has a good time with a drunken sales rep — well, almost everyone; (4) a woman tracks her stepfather’s moves, wondering if he’s being unfaithful to her mother; (5) a concert-goer is suspicious of someone in the audience; (6) an art collector seeks a particular piece of Renaissance art — “piece” being the operative word.

Now to the story set in Los Angeles: It is simply brilliant. It reads like an old-fashioned noir detective story, and it made me laugh. It has great characters (one of them famous in real life), action, surprises, and plot twists. Towles introduces the characters one by one with a bit of their back stories, and eventually they all come together.

We meet Eve in 1938 as she’s traveling on the train that will take her to Hollywood, where the action starts. (Eve was introduced in the author’s “Rules of Civility.”) Later, when a blackmail note is delivered, Eve takes charge: “Reading the note — which was a demand for money and a promise of contact by phone — Eve could feel her own face beginning to grow flush, her own hand beginning to tremble. But she wasn’t about to break into tears. She felt like every tear in her body had dried up. They had dried up from an old and relentless anger. An anger stoked by that long parade of preachers and teachers and Prince Charmings, wannabe puppeteers all. At every stage of her life, Eve had met them. But nowhere had she encountered as many puppeteers as in Hollywood. Every agent and manager, every director, producer, and studio chief had his arms out and his fingers extended, looking to grab a woman by the strings.”

The humor can be subtle: “Chester’s was a coffee shop in the shape of a giant coffeepot. … As the sign over the cash register made clear, the three ways you could get your coffee at Chester’s were sweetened, unsweetened, and somewhere else.”

I think I had a smile on my face the whole time I was reading the novella. Eve is so witty, complex and surprising! I love this main character and wouldn’t mind following her adventures in yet another book! Warning: Towles doesn’t like to use quotation marks, which has always bothered me, but the rest of his writing is so darn good it doesn’t matter.

“Long Island” by Colm Tóibín is the sequel to his “Brooklyn” and features the same characters — especially Irish- born Eilis (the author says you can pronounce it AY-lish or EYE-lish). It’s not important that you read the first one. (I liked this one better anyway.)

Eilis has been married to Italian-American Tony for more than 20 years, and they live on Long Island with their two teenage children. One day, a man comes to her door and says his wife is pregnant by Tony; the man won’t have the baby in his house, so when it’s born, he’s bringing it to her. Wow. Of course, she feels betrayed. First, she has to deal with the shock of her cheating husband. Then there’s the future baby, which she wants nothing to do with. She has to figure out how she feels about both of these complications.

Her mother in Ireland is turning 80, and Eilis hasn’t seen her in 20 years. It’s the perfect time to go to Ireland for a few months and avoid the whole baby thing.

Back home in Ireland, her old friend Nancy, now a widow, is secretly seeing Jim, the man Eilis was once romantically involved with. “If Eilis Lacey had not gone back to America, Jim would be married to her.” Not knowing about Jim and Nancy, Eilis is tempted to start seeing Jim again. On her first walk through her hometown, she chances upon him: “She did not know if he had seen her. He was looking in the other direction but he might have averted his gaze precisely because he had spotted her coming towards him on the opposite footpath. Even though she put her head down, she was sure that he would not be able to avoid noticing her. There was no one else on the street. If she were to turn her head and glance across, their eyes would connect. She would not know what to do and she could not imagine how he might respond. Maybe he had not actually recognized her. But if he had seen her, they could hardly just nod to each other, or say a polite hello. The best thing would be for her not to look across at him again and to proceed to the Square without glancing behind. An encounter like this was always bound to happen. She had never imagined, however, that if she were to see him, she would actually feel an urge, as she did now, to approach him, speak to him, hear his voice. But it could not be done. She would have to continue on her walk through the town as if he were not standing watching her from the door of his pub.”

Which woman does Jim want? Which man does Eilis want? It’s a great read — picked by Oprah for her book club — with a sort-of “Gone with the Wind”-type ending.

Happy reading!

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Mary Louise Ruehr is a books columnist for The Portager. Her One for the Books column previously appeared in the Record-Courier, where she was an editor.