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Monday Bookshelf

There are many times that we pick up a new book by a contemporary writer and we either can't get into it or we finish it and find it mediocre and forgettable.  Right now I feel like I've discovered a treasure trove of excellent new books.  I recently finished "This Beautiful Life" by Helen Schulman. I am in the middle of "Rules of Civility" by Amor Towles. And I just purchased "A Book of Secrets" by Michael Holroyd, which will be the next book I read.  All three books have at their core complicated, interesting women who don't always follow the rules.  Each book deals with different time periods and places --  the present time in New York City amongst the Internet generation, the 1930's in New York amongst the working class and the upper class, and the early twentieth-century in England amongst the avant-garde. Each of these books has the promise of a satisfying read and a journey into thought-provoking territory.

"This Beautiful Life" concerns a family of four -- mother, father, teenage son, and 7-year old daughter -- who move from a small town in upstate New York to a wealthy neighborhood in New York City.  The father has a high-profile position at a prestigious university, the mother is a retired academic;  the children enter the privileged world of private schools and the family meets an elite group of students and parents.  The teenage son gets involved in Internet scandal with a younger girl whom he has spurned.  A shocking video is made and is circulated widely on the Internet.  We watch as the lives of this family fall apart.  This books deals with very real and frightening concerns about the addiction of people, both young and old, to social media.  I found myself riveted by this poignant story of how an inadvertent act on the part of the teenage son causes this family's seemingly happy and comfortable world to spin out of control with unexpected results.  It is a powerful warning of the hazards of twenty-first century technology, unsupervised children, and girls growing up too fast.  I was fascinated by the character of the mother as she is complicated, imperfect, and fighting her own demons.

"Rules of Civility" by Amor Towles has the satisfying feel of a novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  I am half-way into it and I am fully engaged with the characters and the story.  We are in New York in the 1930's and the heroine Katey Kontent is a scrappy working girl who lives in a Greenwich Village boarding house with her roommate Evelyn.  One New Year's Eve they meet Tinker Grey, a handsome banker from a wealthy family.  The two girls quickly enter his world of high society and their lives become intertwined with surprising results.  So far I am loving this book.  It depicts New York society in a sparkling way, the dialogue is witty and quick, reminding me at times of a Frank Capra movie, and the heroine is appealing in her independence and courage.  The banter between the characters is often funny and memorable.  This is a fun read, but with real substance and serious issues under the lovely veneer.

"A Book of Secrets" by master-biographer Michael Holroyd has as its subtitle, "Illegitimate Daughters and Absent Fathers."  Holroyd is best known as the biographer of Lytton Strachey, George Bernard Shaw, and Augustus John.  He is married to the novelist Margaret Drabble and together they are a formidable literary couple living in England.  He was knighted in 2007 and she is Dame Margaret Drabble.  In this book Holroyd weaves together the lives of several women who were on the fringes of British aristocracy and the periphery of respectable society, living in the early part of the twentieth century.  These women include Alice Keppel, mistress of the Prince of Wales; Eve Fairfax, a muse to Auguste Rodin; and Violet Trufussis, love interest of Vita Sackville-West.  They are all united by a place in Italy that they visited, the Villa Cimbrone which sits on a hill above the Italian village of Ravello.  The reviewers have loved this book, calling it a beautiful narrative told with great wit and filled with meditations on fragile human connections, the mystery of place, and the role of the biographer.  I cannot wait to read this one.

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