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BY THE WAY

Reading Cornwell, Selasi, Strout and Picoult: from OK to best-seller

Tuesday, July 16, 2013 - 12:01 am

Book time! And the reading is easy — some good, some OK.

Let’s get rid of the OK ones first.

Patricia Cornwell usually writes entertaining books, and “The Front” falls into that category. It’s a crime novel, of course, with some interesting characters: Win Garano, Nana and the DA, Monique, are among them. And cops from different departments are forced to work together — and we meet some others — and when I finished the book, I told my daughter I miss Kay Scarpetta. She agreed.

Then I turned to “Ghana Must Go,” by Taiye Selasi. The scene shifts often, the characters are well-drawn, the plot moves along smoothly and I learned a lot of history. I am glad I read it, but it doesn’t go down on my list of “You Must Read This Book.”

Then I turned to “The Burgess Boys.” It’s by Elizabeth Strout, and that fact alone means it’s worth reading. Have you read her book “Olive Kitteridge”? I wish you would, and when you finish it, let me know if you like Olive.

Well, as I was reading this book about the Burgess boys, Jim and Bob, and Bob’s twin sister, Susan, I found myself asking if I liked the characters. What causes them to be like this? I asked. The reader finds out far more about them as the book goes on. Jim is a highly successful corporate lawyer with a likeable wife. Bob is a legal aid attorney, divorced, but his ex-wife is frequently in the book. They now live in New York. Susan has stayed in Maine and has a son, Zach, a shy, quiet, unassuming teenager with few if any friends.

Jim has belittled Bob all of his life, and Bob has taken it. Their father had died in a freak accident, which affected all three siblings. Anyway, Susan calls on her brothers for help because Zach has committed a terrible crime: He threw a frozen pig’s head through the doors of a Somali mosque, and to make it worse, that was during Ramadan. So now, in addition to trying to understand the messed-up relationships, we encounter racial tensions and politicians very much aware of what these tensions can do.

Strout knows how to write. Maine and Brooklyn: quite a contrast and indicative of the rivalries in her story. Seemingly passive Bob grows before our eyes, and it’s impossible not to like him, even when he is called “slobdog” by Jim and he takes it. We understand the hardships the Somalis face as they try to adapt to life in Maine, of all places. We watch the political maneuvering and get to meet some of the Somalis and finally learn about the circumstances of the father’s car accident, and that’s as much as I’m going to tell you.

Several people I interviewed for my Page Turner column had talked about Jodi Picoult’s books, so as you know, I tried a couple of them. I’ve written about them before. But this time I picked her book “The Storyteller” because it was staying on the best-seller list so long. I wanted to know why.

I have found out. At first I thought the book could be used as a primer to get recent generations to learn about the Holocaust. But it is more than that. The author has the habit of changing viewpoints in chapters, and that took me a little while to adapt to. So we have various narrators as we enjoy the aroma in the bakery because of the descriptions and we can taste the wonderful goodies that result from Sage’s mastery of the art of baking. We meet Josef, an elderly man who had become well-loved as a teacher and coach, and Minka, who has never divulged what happened to her during the Holocaust, and Sage’s sisters, and Leo, who works for the FBI.

When Josef asks Sage to help him end his life, the story turns a corner. He tells her he was a Nazi and participated in killing many people. Sage is now facing a dilemma. What is the moral thing to do? She begins to question where the line is between punishment and forgiveness. She is scarred (it takes a long time for us to find out how and why that happened), and Josef obviously is deeply scarred because of his past. The reader gets caught up in deciding what is the right thing to do.

After all, during the telling of the story we spend time in Auschwitz and the Polish ghetto and the awfulness of that era. As you can tell, it is suspenseful. It is going to make you think.

I have just started “And the Mountains Echoed.” It’s by Khaled Hosseini, and I’d like to get back to it. So enough for now.

Betty E. Stein is a retired teacher in Fort Wayne.