Books by the Bay: Yiyun Li ponders the perplexities of loneliness in "Kinder Than Solitude"
02/17/2014 12:00:00 PM PST
02/21/2014 12:42:43 PM PST
With settings in Beijing and Beirut, California and the Midwest, these new novels by Yiyun Li, Rabih Alameddine, Bich Minh Nguyen, and Mary McNear traverse multiple eras and time zones. "Kinder Than Solitude" by Yiyun Li (Random House, $26, 336 pages) Award-winning author Yiyun Li returns this month with a haunting new novel about three young Chinese students whose lives are altered when an older girl in their circle of friends is murdered. The book begins in 2010; Shaoai, who lived horribly maimed for nearly 20 years after being poisoned, has finally died. The story then loops back to 1989, as Ruyu, a 15-year-old orphan, comes to live with Shaoai's family in Beijing. Acutely uncomfortable with Shaoai, Ruyu befriends Moran, a girl in her class, and Boyang, the boy Moran hopes to marry. The three become inseparable -- until the poisoning of Shaoai sends them into the world on divergent paths. Twenty years later, Ruyu is living in California and working as a housekeeper; Moran has also moved to the U.S., while Boyang, a successful businessman, remains in Beijing. Ruyu and Moran have married and divorced; Boyang stays single, and all three seem unable to connect. Li, a native of Beijing who lives in Oakland, creates a potent atmosphere of mystery around Shaoai's death. Yet even as she resolves its lingering questions, the author suggests that innocence lost can never be regained. Beautifully written, "Kinder Than Solitude" is a moving meditation on "the profound and perplexing loneliness in which every human heart dwells." The author will read from the book Wednesday at Mrs. Dalloway's in Berkeley, and Thursday at the Mechanics' Institute in San Francisco, presented by the Asia Society and Litquake. "An Unnecessary Woman" by Rabih Alameddine (Grove, $25, 320 pages) Loneliness also pervades Rabih Alameddine's new novel, the first since his best-seller, "The Hakawati." The woman of the title is 72-year-old Aaliya Sohbi, an introverted former bookstore clerk who is "not fond of people." Divorced and childless, living alone in the ruins of Beirut, she is her family's "unnecessary appendage," but her mind is alert, and she spends her days surrounded by books. Each year, she translates a favorite book into Arabic, carefully sealing the manuscript in a box as soon as it's done; the 37 translations she's completed have never been read by anyone. For all her reclusive ways, she's a strong, independent thinker, and as she muses on art, literature and the power of language, she recalls the life experiences and long-expired relationships that have brought her to this point. Alameddine, who divides his time between Beirut and San Francisco, creates an indelible character in Aaliya and evokes a world of intellect and emotion in her little apartment. "Pioneer Girl" by Bich Minh Nguyen (Viking Adult, $26.95, 304 pages) Bich Minh Nguyen's second novel starts with an intriguing premise -- a Vietnamese-American student tracing the westward progress of iconic "Little House on the Prairie" author Laura Ingalls Wilder. The book's central character, Lee Lien, has just earned her doctorate in 19th-century English literature; with no job in sight, she's moved in with her difficult mother and is working in the family noodle house. Everything changes when she comes across a gold brooch left at her grandfather's cafe in Saigon 40 years earlier. Convinced that it once belonged to Rose Wilder -- Laura Ingalls Wilder's journalist daughter -- Lee leaves her Chicago home and embarks on a journey to Wilder's frontier. Nguyen, who recently moved from the Midwest to the Bay Area, peppers her tale with sharp insights about mothers and daughters. She will read from the book March 19 at Towne Center Books in Pleasanton. "Up at Butternut Lake" by Mary McNear (William Morrow, $14.99, 384 pages) San Francisco writer Mary McNear introduces Allie Beckett, a young mother still reeling from her soldier husband's death in Afghanistan. Pledging to make a new life for herself and her 5-year-old son, she moves to her family's cabin in Butternut Lake, Minn., reconnecting with old friends Jax and Caroline -- and meeting the town's most eligible bachelor. "Up at Butternut Lake" is the first of a series; a sequel, "Butternut Summer," is due in August.
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