Books by the Bay: Maria Hummel plumbs some serious family history in "Motherland"
01/06/2014 12:00:00 PM PST
01/10/2014 03:56:35 PM PST
Once the new year begins, it's time to get back to the serious business of reading. Of course, many of us don't put down our books even when December gets hectic. However, January's a good time to rediscover what we loved about books in the first place. This month brings new novels by Bay Area authors Maria Hummel, Tiffany Baker and Kirstin Chen. Also on the list: a new memoir by "L'Affaire" author Diane Johnson and a nonfiction work on the importance of reading by Berkeley critic Wendy Lesser. "Motherland" by Maria Hummel (Counterpoint, $26, 384 pages) Family history fuels "Motherland." Maria Hummel's novel, set in Germany during the waning years of World War II, is a moving story of love and privation, sacrifice and survival. The book's central character is Liesl Kappus, a young wife left to care for three stepsons when her doctor husband, Frank, is drafted as a medical military officer. Liesl's struggles to find food for the children are compounded when two refugee families move in with them; Frank, meanwhile, faces daily horrors in his work as a reconstructive surgeon. Hummel, a Jones Lecturer at Stanford University, delivers an intimate portrait of family life during wartime, one that draws on accounts from her father's German childhood and letters from her paternal grandparents discovered years after the war ended. She will read from the novel at a book launch party Tuesday at Booksmith in San Francisco, and in a joint reading with Ryan McIlvain on Jan. 22 at the Stanford Bookstore. "Mercy Snow" by Tiffany Baker (Grand Central Publishing, $25, 336 pages) San Francisco author Tiffany Baker ("The Gilly Salt Sisters") returns with this tale of two New England families. It's the mid-1990s in Titan Falls, N.H., and 19-year-old Mercy Snow has inherited her family's rundown home. Returning to town with her older brother, Zeke, and her younger sister, Hannah, she arrives with good intentions -- until a terrible accident sends a school bus skidding off an icy road, killing one of the town's children. Zeke is blamed, and Mercy's quest to clear her brother's name forces her to take on the wealthy McAllisters, the town's ruling family and owners of the local paper mill. As the families' secrets come pouring out, Baker deftly balances personal grievances with broader concerns about pollution, economic justice and corporate responsibility in small-town America. She will read from the book Jan. 17 at Book Passage in Corte Madera. "Soy Sauce for Beginners" by Kirstin Chen (Amazon Publishing/New Harvest, $23, 256 pages) Bay Area author Kirstin Chen explores the East-West divide in this debut novel about a young woman's struggle to reconcile personal goals and family traditions. Her protagonist, Gretchen, is married and living in San Francisco when she discovers that her husband has been unfaithful. Gretchen impulsively packs up and moves back to her native Singapore, only to discover that all is not well in her childhood home; her mother is ill, and her father's soy sauce business is failing. If Gretchen's attempts to rescue the company and revive her love life feel a little predictable, Chen, who was born and raised in Singapore, navigates the culture with the insight of an insider. "Flyover Lives" by Diane Johnson (Viking, $26.95, 264 pages) Diane Johnson has scored hits with her keen observations in three novels, "L'Affaire," "Le Mariage" and "Le Divorce." In "Flyover Lives," she turns to the memoir form, considering what it means to be American. It all starts when a French friend drops an offhand remark: "It's funny," she says, "the way all Americans believe they are descended from royalty." That's enough to get Johnson reflecting on her Midwestern roots. She digs into family history, tracking it back to the early American settlers and their pioneering westward journeys, spicing the narrative with a personal account of her own path as a writer. Meet the author Jan. 28 at Bookshop Santa Cruz and Jan. 30 at Mrs. Dalloway's in Berkeley. "Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books" by Wendy Lesser (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25, 240 pages) Wendy Lesser, founder and editor of Threepenny Review, writes about the delights and rewards of reading in this new book of critical essays, sharing insights about favorite authors and the novels, plays and poetry that have changed her life. "Reading literature," she writes, "is a way of reaching back to something bigger and older and different. It can give you the feeling that you belong to the past as well as the present, and it can help you realize that your present will someday be someone else's past."
Contact Georgia Rowe at email@example.com.