People who like to read want to know what their friends are reading. They browse bookstores looking for intriguing covers and titles, check the Sunday New York Times Book Review, and even eavesdrop on strangers talking about books. I have made a list of some of my favorite books which includes recent fiction, older but unforgettable fiction, short stories, and some non-fiction as well. I like to read words that can take my breath away and allow me to escape into a world of fictional dreaming. A book becomes a favorite to me when I reluctantly read the last lines, lay my hands on the back cover, and marvel over the beauty of the words. Writers have an obligation to draw you into the story they’ve created and keep you there. Joseph Conrad said: “My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel—it is, before all, to make you see.” I can be reached at email@example.com with your comments and, of course, if you just happen to have a title you want to share.
Abide With Me by Elizabeth Strout
Tyler Caskey, a pastor in a small New England town in the 1950’s, has been recently widowed and left with two daughters—the youngest one living with his mother in another town. He feels he has lost his center of gravity and, above all, his faith. As he struggles to battle cynicism and anger, he knows on some level he has let his congregation down and they him. The townspeople are short on empathy and long on judgments, and the “suffer in silence” Maine mentality does little to alleviate his anguish. Love, faith, compassion, and redemption are the driving forces in this book, the characters are well developed, and the dialogue intriguing. See also “Amy and Isabelle.”
Acts of Faith by Philip Caputo
Caputo, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, has written a powerful novel about the Sudanese civil war and the complicated and tangled web of foreign aid in Africa. “There is no difference between God and the Devil in Africa” proclaims Fitzhugh Martin who is hired by a small airline to help fly U.N.-sponsored aid into a mountainous, oil-rich area of the Sudan, which also happens to be at war with a Muslim-controlled government in Khartoum. To a mercenary, people in misery are seen as markets, an opportunity for monetary gain, and unfortunately amorality is at play here even when the aid is termed “humanitarian.” This novel is long (almost 700 pages) and dense and gets a little bogged down in the middle, but read on—the last chapter you won’t forget.
The Alphabet of Light and Dark by Danielle Wood
If I were you, reader, I would want to own this book, if only to read again and again the many beautifully written passages from the first paragraph to the very last sentences. Essie is a woman in her late twenties who returns to a lighthouse on a small island off the southern tip of Tasmania to put her complicated family history in a perspective she can understand and to quell the sense of loss she has felt since her childhood. Winner of the 2003 Australian Vogel Literary Award. Read it now, and be grateful for Danielle Wood.
All My Sons by Arthur Miller
In Denver I recently saw this very insightful play, which I then had to read. Set in WW II, Joe Keller is a man who started a company making machine parts for airplanes, and in order to produce them in an expedient manner, some defective parts are installed in them that causes airplanes to crash. Joe’s partner is imprisoned, even though the responsibility belongs to both of them. Miller shows how duplicity becomes a way of life, how greed is a driving force, and how lies, if repeated often enough, become the truth. Reality is distorted by a blend of selected memory and self-justification making this is a powerful and moving play. Although dated, its moral is timeless.
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
In this beautifully written novel that takes place in Europe during WW II, two very unlikelycharacters share a common bond. Marie-Laure is a blind French girl living with her father in Paris where he works at the Museum of Natural History. He builds for her an elaborate miniature
mock-up of their neighborhood so that she will never be lost. Werner is an orphaned boy living with his sister in a group home in a mining town in Germany and has an obsession with radios and receivers. The chapters are short—sometimes only a few pages—but the narration moves
along effortlessly toward their eventual encounter and the revelation of their connection. I loved this book in every way.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
I tried a few years ago to read this book, and I don’t know if it was the print, the garish cover, or the daunting length (639 pages) that deterred me; I’m sorry I waited so long to try it again, because it is so rich with story, characters, and prose that I found myself reading more slowly near the end so I wouldn’t have to finish it. When Joseph Kavalier escapes from Nazi Germany in a Houdini-esque fashion, he arrives in Brooklyn to live with his cousin, Sammy Clay. Together they create heroes, stories, and art in comic book form, but the twists and turns their own personal stories take is riveting. This is a brilliant piece of work, full of fantastic and unforgettable characters, and the research Chabon must have done for this Pulitzer Prize winner is impressive in itself.
And The Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini
From the author of The Kite Runner and A Thousand Secret Suns, this multi-layered tale also takes place in Afghanistan. After the death of his mother and brother, Abdullah, along with his three-year-old sister, Pari, are taken by their father to Kabul on a terrible and heart-wrenching mission that changes their lives forever. While I found the time sequences between chapters confusing, the strong bond of family resonates throughout this captivating tale of the power of memory.
Any Human Heart by William Boyd
I alternated between loving and hating this book, and then finally wishing it wouldn’t end. The reader follows the life of Logan Mountstuart through his journal entries from the early 1920’s to the 1980’s. A portion of his life is spent as a writer living in Paris and London during the era of Fitzgerald, Joyce, Hemingway, and Waugh when all the ex-pats gather in bars to drink, carouse, and discuss art. Even though his lifestyle at certain times of his life is shallow and self-serving, it is a life that evolves and takes many unexpected twists and turns. It is, in fact, a story of any human heart, of redemption and renewal, and I found it very moving and poignant.
The Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro
Claire Roth is a young artist in Boston who makes her living painting reproductions for an online retailer called reproductions.com. She is persuaded to forge a Degas that had been stolen in 1990 from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (along with $500 million worth of other art) in exchange for a one-woman show in an exclusive gallery owned by a man who becomes her lover. Ambition and greed blur the lines between what is forgery and what is fraud in this taut thriller.
The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
You don’t have to be a baseball fan to love this book, because the story and the characters are rich and memorable in every way.
Westish College, a small school in Michigan, has recruited 17-year-old Henry from a high school team in South Dakota to play shortstop. Henry has impressed the captain of the Harpooners with his stealth, his feline crouch, and his ability to drill the ball wherever it needs to go. Life gets complicated in both the baseball story and the backstory, but they blend together beautifully in this coming-of-age tale that will surely win many awards. The New York Times named it the best book of 2011.
Away by Amy Bloom
After her entire family is brutally murdered in a Russian pogrom, Lillian Leyb flees to America where she finds work as a seamstress in a shoddy, Jewish theater where she eventually becomes the mistress of not only the owner but of the owner’s son. From a cousin in Russia, Lillian hears that her three-year-old daughter, Sophie, survived the slaughter of her family and is still alive. Lillian journeys back to Siberia to find her. Displaying cunning and unbelievable bravery, Lillian’s determination takes her from the slums and sweatshops of New York to the Yukon, where she endures imprisonment and prostitution. Amy Bloom is one of my favorite writers—check out “Love Invests Us” and “A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You”.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo
On the way into the city of Mumbai from the airport, one passes large billboards entitled “The Beautiful Forevers” which display ornate and palatial homes with exquisite kitchens and spacious living rooms full of furniture. What lies on the other side of the billboard is the slum of Annawadi where the garbage sorters and the scrap-metal thieves struggle to survive for a future that doesn’t look like the past. The author does an excellent job using narrative non-fiction to tell the story, but I found the endless hyphenation of words and made-up words distracting.
Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson
Ruby speaks to the reader from the womb and announces “I exist!” She describes the odd family into which she is about to be born: her mother, Bunty, a bitter woman of little emotion, her disappointing father, George, and two sisters. At the end of each chapter a footnote fills in the gaps in the family history. The writing is British and can be very funny, but the under story is tragic. The family lives by the rules of a dishonest script which insulates them from the past and a terrible secret. Ruby laments, “How on earth am I supposed to pass my ‘Verbal Reasoning’ paper on Tuesday when I see so little of it in the course of my everyday life?” A 1995 Whitbread Book of the Year.
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
Music and words can be transforming and in this novel, I found both. Roxanne Coss, a lyric soprano, has arrived in a South American country to give a performance for the political and social elite at the behest of Katsumi Hosokawa, a wealthy and influential Japanese business man. Not only is Hosokawa obsessed with opera, but he is also obsessed with the diva whose career he has followed for years. The concert is violently interrupted by a band of terrorists whose intent it is to hold the guests for ransom. As the weeks turn into months, the tension swells, and the terrorists and their hostages are drawn into odd alliances, friendships form, and the lines blur between captor and captive. But in the end, they are reduced to one common denominator—their humanity. Suspense and dialogue, and music imagined make this a powerful novel. See also The Patron Saint of Liars.
Benediction by Kent Haruf
Kent Haruf takes the quotidian lives of the people in the small, fictional town of Holt, Colorado and brings them alive with the sparsest of words, but the words are powerful and compelling. Dad Lewis, a stalwart and no-nonsense man, is dying, and his family and friends gather to help him on his way. There is an innate truthfulness and grace in Haruf’s writing and a gentleness that brings a myriad of emotions to the surface.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain
Billy Lynn and the other members of Bravo are home for a “Victory Tour” and being celebrated for their role in a hyped mission in Iraq of dubious detail exalted by Fox News. The owner of the Texas Cowboys insists they be recognized, along with Beyonce, at halftime. Billy takes a seat on stage with the feeling “the war has attained a new height of lunacy.” The language is rough, but the sentiment is powerful, and when Billy exclaims, “Oh my country,” his despair and angst transfer right into your soul.
Birds in Fall by Brad Kessler
Near an island off the coast of Nova Scotia, a plane on its way to Amsterdam crashes into the frigid waters of the Atlantic–there are no survivors. The families and friends of the dead gather at a small inn near the crash site where they form a fragile bond. The group includes those of different ages, personalities, and cultures. Ana Gathreaux , an ornithologist specializing in avian migratory patterns and the wife of one of the victims (also an ornithologist), uses the metaphor of migration (renewal and continuity) as solace. The power of music, memory, loss, and love pulls this wonderful book together. Reread the first chapter when you finish the book—it reconnects the dots. Thank you, Louise, for this recommendation.
Birds in the Hand edited by Dylan Nelson and Kent Nelson
This anthology of fiction and poetry about birds will not only please bird lovers but nature lovers as well. The list of contributors is impressive, including Barbara Kingsolver, Wendell Berry, Billy Collins, Barry Lopez, Flannery O’Connor, and T.C. Boyle. The works range from funny to poignant to sublime. In B.J. Buckley’s “In June in Summer,” a woman finds a magpie killed by a car, and she stops to retrieve a feather. “Let its ghost go flying. I wanted then to offer/ some apology, some murmur like a prayer, a soft last word./ But in the face of raucous beauty quieted, subsiding/ already sweetly toward decay, it comes to this–/I knelt to lay my breath against its breathless body/ and spoke nothing.” Read, too, Eudora Welty’s “A Still Moment,’ Tim Gautreaux’s “Little Frogs in a Ditch,” and poems: Li-Young Lee’s “Praise Them,” and Derek Walcott’s “The Season of Phantasmal Peace.” Kent and his daughter, Dylan, have put together a beautiful collection of work by many of our best-known writers and poets.
Book of Jonas by Stephan Dau
I actually had to re-read sections of this book several times before I fully grasped the implications of this very moving story. Younnis is a young boy of fifteen whose village is bombed in the night by the Americans, but Younnis, badly injured, escapes to a cave in the mountains nearby. He awakes to an American soldier, Christopher, who administers morphine to him, feeds him, and cares for him. In a series of haunting flashbacks and through Christopher’s journal entries, the reader learns of the horrific consequences of this fateful night.
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
It’s taken a few weeks to decide if I actually liked this book. It won the Book Sense Book Award for Children’s Literature, but it is much more of an adult book. Initially I felt the book was gimmicky—too many asides to the reader, the tease of a graphic novel, and the kicker is the narrator is Death, but the drawings are deeply affecting, and some of the prose quite beautiful. Liesel Meminger is a young girl in Nazi Germany who steals books from burning piles of banned books and from the personal library of the mayor of Munich. By reading to him, she develops a very close relationship to a Jewish man her family has hidden in their basement. This book is very much about the power of kind words, evil words, healing words, and Death does not discriminate.
Bridge of Sighs by Richard Russo
While reading this book, I thought if one were to ask Richard Russo a question, there would be a good chance he’d never stop talking. This book, as well as the majority of his books, is a long, dense chronicle about small-town life and about what home, friendship, and family mean. Lou C. Lynch (affectionately and derisively know as “Lucy”) is the narrator of this short-on-dialogue tome, and, as a 60-year-old man, he’s writing his memoir. As a child, he is held captive by older bullies who put him in a trunk and pretend to saw him in half, and from there, the story builds in all directions. Give yourself lots of time to read this and revel in the depth and scope of this family saga.
Brief Encounters With Che Guevara by Ben Fountain
Fountain is the author of one of my all-time favorite books, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. This collection of short stories was published in 2007, and almost every story is
set in a foreign country: Haiti, Myanmar, Colombia. Each is full of humor, angst, irony, and certainly, the bizarre. The story, “Near Extinct Birds of the Central Cordillera,” is
about a young ornithologist working on his Ph.D. who travels to Colombia to study a rare parrot and is kidnapped by guerrillas. His rescue is straight out of a comedy of the
absurd. Fountain rewards the reader with beautiful prose as well as riveting plots.
The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka
In the early 1900’s Japanese women came to America as mail-order brides with the understanding they would marry handsome and successful husbands. They left behind their culture, their language, and their families. More often than not, they ended up in the fertile fields of California working seven days a week, married to abusive husbands, and having babies whom they could never properly care for, and then in WW II, they were forced to leave their homes and enter labor camps. This short novel is told in the first person plural with a staccato-like delivery that keeps the reader from ever connecting with an individual character, but it is powerful, nonetheless. Finalist for the 2011 National Book Award.
The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout
I have liked everything Elizabeth Strout has written because she writes about what’s real—there’s nothing particulary glamorous about her characters—they are the
brothers, uncles, sisters, cousins, mothers and fathers who exist in every family with all their faults and complicated individual stories. While the Burgess boys are the main
focus, it also includes the dynamics of a twin sister, the wives and husbands. There is no perfect family, no easy lessons, no set way to live a meaningful life.
Cal by Bernard Maclaverty
For me, Cal is the jewel in the crown of novels about Ireland. This novel wins, hands down, for the best last line. Cal is a young, Catholic man living in Ulster with his father and caught between two worlds–religious and political. He has no inclination for terrorism, but he wants to be loyal, and he compromises his values by participating in the murder of a policeman. His guilt and his anguish consume him especially after he falls in love with the policeman’s widow. Written in a spare and gentle style, the love story is tenderly told and won’t be forgotten. See also Grace Notes.
Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks
The protagonist of this beautifully wrought novel of historical fiction is a young woman who is the daughter of a fundamentalist but compassionate preacher living in community on Martha’s Vineyard in the 1600’s. She befriends Caleb, a young man who becomes the first Native American to attend Harvard College. She teaches him English and Latin, and he, in turn, teaches her his language as well as his knowledge of the island and “everything that bloomed, or swam or flew.” It’s a tender, loving story and true to the cadence of speech of the period.
Capital by John Lanchester
When the economy of 2008 was spiraling out of control, disparate residents, culturally and financially, of a gentrified neighborhood find common ground from a note delivered to each of them that reads, “We want what you have.” There’s a Pakistani shop keeper, a banker, a soccer star newly arrived from Senegal, an African meter maid, and an elderly woman dying of a brain tumor. Driven by the character development, the author skillfully finds what connects these ordinary people of Pepys Road in London. The book has been rightfully compared to “Bonfire of the Vanities.”
Caribou Island by David Vann
Don’t read this book if you’re feeling the slightest bit depressed, as Vann has a propensity for stories about suicide. For thirty years, Gary and Irene have endured a torturous marriage. When Gary decides to build a cabin on an island in the Kenai in Alaska, his wife reluctantly agrees. Though Gary has no patience for himself, his life, or his family, he badgers Irene to take on this doomed task. Repressed rage, disappointment, regret, and fear are the building blocks of the hovel they cobble together, and it is a sad metaphor of their lives. This is a dark, haunting, and deeply disturbing read.
Catherine the Great by Robert Massie
She was born Sophia Augusta Frederika in Germany in 1729, and this princess, at the age of fourteen, was sent to Russia to marry a bizarre and pock-marked future Tsar Peter III. She became Catherine II and had three children but was never allowed to nurture them, and oddly, not one of them was by her husband. As the queen of Russia, she embraced the arts and culture, she was intellectually curious, generous and kind, and she was strikingly beautiful. This biography is not weighted down in endless dates and minutiae and reads as smoothly and gracefully as any well-written novel. Don’t miss it!
Cheating at Canasta by William Trevor
I have always thought of Trevor’s writing as gentile and polite, but this collection of fine stories has a more violent and harsh edge than most of his work. The plotlines vary from a hit and run death of a child to the infidelity in a marriage; the title story is about a man allowing his wife who has Alzheimer’s to cheat at canasta. Trevor has often been compared to Chekhov, and it’s easy to see why. The complexity and emotional undercurrent of these stories haunted me for weeks—it is easily one of my favorite books of the year.
The City of Falling Angels by John Berendt
Berendt, the author of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, writes this time about Venice. A few days before his arrival in the city, the ornate and grand La Fenice Opera House, undergoing remodeling, has burned to the ground. Originally built in 1792, it was destroyed by fire in 1837, as well, and rebuilt—the premier performances of two of Verdi’s most famous operas, La Traviata and La Rigoletto were staged in this magnificent building. Berendt describes the night of the 1996 fire from an apartment of a well-known glass blower whose subsequent work was inspired by this spectacle of devastation. Was it arson or negligence? And why did it take eight-plus scandal-ridden years to rebuild it at a cost far beyond its original budget? This is a fascinating story, not only about La Fenice, but also about the undercurrents and intrigues in Venetian society and culture.
Cliff Walk by Don J. Snyder
When Don Snyder loses his cushy job teaching creative writing at Colgate University, he figures he’ll simply apply at other ivy-league schools, but after one hundred rejection letters, despair and disbelief set in. What a person thinks he is entitled to or deserves often has no place in reality, and Snyder finds himself on a long and arduous path to an epiphany that life was never going to be as it once was. With a pregnant wife, three children, and no money, he finally lands a job as a construction worker and is happy to have it. Although this book was published in 1997, it will hit home for those of us who have lost a job or a business in this uncertain economy.
Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness by Alexandra Fuller
If you enjoyed “Don’t Lets Go To The Dogs Tonight,” Fuller’s first book of nonfiction, you will find this book equally absorbing. This memoir focuses on Fuller’s mother, Nicola, her childhood in Rhodesia, and the life she and her husband made in the bush in Kenya. Under absolutely shocking conditions and circumstances, Nicola demonstrates resilence and determination–often to her detriment–and charges on, ignoring the fog of colonialism and apartheid. She loses three of her five children and takes it in her stride. I couldn’t decide if I liked her or pitied her, but either way, she is a very unique character.
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra
This book and “The Goldfinch” were my top two favorite books of 2013. The backdrop of this very affecting novel is the Chechen war. I found it helpful to do a little research to better understand the dynamics, and, as in all wars, there are no clear winners. Despite unspeakable acts of brutality, people still hoped and more importantly, held on to memories of home, of family, of loved ones.The writing is passionate, the characters well developed, and after the last page, I had to wait a while before I could pick up another book—I didn’t want to let go of the power of the words.
Contrary People by Carolyn Osborn
Theo, a seventy-year-old widower, passes his days aimlessly since the death of his wife several years ago. He is a retired history professor from the University of Texas in Austin who looks forward to his one-day-a-week volunteer position at an obscure museum where, by chance, he meets the granddaughter of a former student whose life has also taken an unexpected turn. This sweet and gentle novel reveals important insights about growing old and what it means to be kind.
A Crime in the Neighborhood by Suzanne Bern
I avoided this book on my table for months because of the subject matter. It looked like a mystery and a crime mystery, neither of which I seek out. The first chapter is about the murder of a twelve-year-old boy, but for the rest of the book the murder is secondary to the story. It is told from the point of view of a nine-year-old girl whose life is reeling from her own family’s dissolution and whose imagination and desire for attention spins out of control. She keeps a notebook (evidence!) that details the comings and goings of everyone in the neighborhood, especially Mr. Green—a single man who moved in next door—who is mostly concerned with trimming his lawn and building a barbeque. The writer deftly teaches us about fear, abandonment, and loss of innocence in this coming-of-age story that was a New York Times Notable Book.
The Crying Tree by Naseem Rakha
I like this book because it is gracefully written about a difficult subject, well researched, and the characters are vivid, haunting, and thoroughly credible. Although I shy away from books about crime, this moving story is more about forgiveness than anything else. I thought I knew the ending at the beginning, but the conclusion turns out to be not so simple. Irene Stanley is the mother of two children and lives with her husband, a deputy sheriff, in her childhood home in a small town in Illinois. Things are familiar, comfortable, there’s a routine, but one day, her husband comes home and announces he has taken a job in Oregon and the whole family is moving. What ensues is every parents’ worst nightmare and more.
Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese
Verghese’s attention to detail is extraordinary, sometimes exhausting, and his book could easily be several hundred pages shorter, but you if like epic family sagas, this book is for you. Be prepared, however, for the minutiae of medical procedures from a liver transplant to the insertion of a chest tube in the vena cava to the birth of twins joined at the head. Twin brothers are born to an Indian nun at a mission hospital in Ethiopia—the father is a British surgeon, and after their birth and the death of Sister Mary Joseph, he flees the country. Parts of the story are fascinating, but it is long and involved.
A Dangerous Friend by Ward Just
This intriguing novel takes place in Vietnam in the years before the United States was still denying any involvement in the country. Under the supposedly benign auspices of the Llewellyn Group, roads and schools were built, children were vaccinated, clinics established, and agricultural advances were introduced to improve the rice harvest. The Llewellyn group hires Sydney Parade who is passionate and idealistic about his work, but totally unaware the Llewellyn Group is actually a covert arm of the Pentagon. Unknowingly, he puts his friends–a French rubber plantation owner and his American wife–in danger. This story illustrates the morass of deception, disillusionment, and greed that were the cornerstones of our government’s policy in Vietnam. A New York Times Notable Book of the Year.
Dear Life by Alice Munro
How do the words of Alice Munro flow so effortlessly onto the page? In each story, the few characters are easily knowable, and the reader feels an immediate kinship with each of them. Munro writes not only of the mistakes of humanity—the infidelities, the disappointments, and the losses but also of the triumph of compassion, commitment, and resolve. Very few stories have tidy endings but never feel truncated; each is a slice of life expertly rendered.
The Dinner by Herman Koch
What I liked most about this quick read is that any preconceived notions of what the reader thinks would happen next doesn’t! Two couples go to dinner (the men are brothers), and the superficial, congenial conversation among them disintegrates quickly when they discuss the
recent nefarious activities of their children. Koch does a brilliant job combining the courses of the dinner with the courses their lives have taken, and the tone is charged with menace and uncertainty. Translated from the Dutch and the winner of the Publieksprijs Prize in 2009.
The Dog Stars by Peter Heller
You’re either going to love this book or hate it, but for me, the jury is still out. Heller doesn’t use quotation marks, and often his sentence structure is pretty bizarre, but somehow the book is captivating. Hig and his dog, Jasper, are the stars in this post-apocalyptic novel of survival after
a pandemic flu wipes out a good portion of the known world, including Hig’s wife, Melissa. Hig does have a nutcase sidekick named Bangley whose fascination with guns helps them survive any attacks by marauding and/or infected bands of people who occasionally appear out of
nowhere . What Hig loves is fishing, hunting, and flying his plane (filled with gas from various depots) and philosophizing about what meaning can be derived from this new state of existence. Heller can be humorous, and he’s at his best when describing landscape if you can
handle the randomness of this thoughts.
Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
I resisted reading this book for a long time, partly because of the publicity from Oprah (although I very often like her selections), but also because it looked like chick lit. I was pleasantly surprised, however, by the author’s openness, self-reflection, and humor. After a painful divorce and long bouts of depression, Gilbert travels around the world on a journey of self-discovery starting in Italy for the food and pleasure, in India for the spiritual inspiration and devotion, and Bali for the combination of the two. She is completely likeable, and no matter the state of one’s own mental health, it is easy to feel sympathy and kinship with this woman. Basically what it comes down to is: happiness is an inside job.
The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
This is one of the strangest books I have ever read. It is told from the perspectives of two women living in Paris–an older woman who is the concierge of an apartment building of upper-class tenants and one of the tenants, a twelve-year-old girl. Although uneducated formally, Renee, the concierge, is an autodidact who ruminates on phenomenology, Art, Russian novels, and the meaning of existence. Paloma, the precocious, angst ridden, and fatalistic soon-to-be teenager, sees no meaning in life and laments the“emotional anorexia” surrounding her. The tie that binds them together is an elegant and well-educated Japanese man who recently moved into the top floor of the building. Renee asks the question, what does Art do for us? “It gives shape to our emotions, makes them visible and, in so doing, places a seal of eternity upon them…” Some passages are very beautiful and some extremely odd. Is it the translation from the French, or is it merely bizarre? See for yourself.
Elegy for Sam Emerson by Hilary Masters
It’s a pleasure to read a book that hooks me in the first few pages not only for the possibilities for a good story but also for a pleasing use of words and writing style. Sam Emerson, a middle-age restaurateur, receives a call from the nursing home informing him that his mother, who had been an actress of some repute, had declined further and was not responding. Sam’s feelings for his mother are somewhat ambivalent—she managed to pawn him off in his youth to an aunt so that she could pursue her career on the stage. Sam sits by her bedside and remembers their life together. “Those of us who believe in the sequential narrative of history sometimes confuse the casual with the causal and forget how promiscuous memory can be as it hops from one version of the past to the next with no allegiance to accuracy. The only requirement is to offer a decent order to events that will satisfy some version of the present.” Sam is an easy man to like—he has integrity, he is tender, he is loyal, he is a man of substance. He doesn’t place blame on his emotionally confusing childhood and his absentee parents but rather takes responsibility for the man he wants to be. The book will please the “foodies” among us as well—wonderful detail to the preparation of fine cuisine from the garden to the plate.
Faith by Jennifer Haigh
When a friend recommended this book, I wasn’t terribly interested in the subject matter, but I love it when my preconceived ideas of the contents of a novel are proved wrong. In the archdiocese of Boston, Father Art, a well-loved and trusted priest has been accused of child abuse. This heinous accusation affects not only the child involved, the priest’s family, but also the parish. Told from the perspective of Father Art’s sister, family loyalty, doubt, responsibility, faith in God, and in one another are all players in this deeply affecting and tragic story.
The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson
This is an odd and quirky book that keeps the reader involved by the absurdity of its plot. Camille and Caleb Fang are wildly imaginative performance artists and the parents of two children who, reluctantly but inevitably, are involved in the bizarre and outrageous pieces their parents conjure up. The big question throughout is what constitutes art and what price must the children pay to be a part of this family. The story line is funny, but often uncomfortably so–not particularly literary but amusing all the same.
Final Exam by Pauline Chen
“A Surgeon’s Reflections on Mortality” is the subtitle for this short but intense book. You may learn more about anatomy classes, cadavers, and formaldehyde (which Dr. Chen refers to as the “olfactory version of a high-pitched shriek”) than you every wanted to know, but you will also learn what makes a compassionate and empathetic surgeon. Doctors learn anatomic principles and become dexterous with all kinds of surgical instruments in med school but learn little about how to talk to the terminally ill or to the families of dying patients. A doctor’s natural instinct is to “save” and to talk about end-of-life care is, for most of them, a disconnect. Chen, however, discovers her own humanism and conquers her fears of communicating about death. If you are squeamish about bodily details, pass this book by.
The First Desire by Nancy Reisman
This New York Times Notable Book follows the lives of a middle-class Jewish family of six living in Buffalo from the late 1920’s to 1950. When the mother dies, even though the children are all grown, what’s left of the family slowly disintegrates into depression, grief, and madness. The oldest daughter, Goldie, gets on a train going west and never looks back: Her sisters, brother, and her father believe she is dead and even sit shivah for her. Her sister, Sadie, becomes the mother figure, marries, but she lacks a passion for life and for her husband and sees him as the “most familiar of strangers.” The remaining three siblings are on auto-pilot, programmed to play a part they don’t understand and powerless to escape the stranglehold of their family. While I didn’t particularly like any of the characters, I thought the writing was rich in description and emotion—“And because when you lose someone from the deep of your life, and you find an echo in another—a stranger, a relative—you give to the other what you’d give to the lost one. Just to hear the echo.” And this: “…she learned she could take pleasure without love but also without wonder, a diminished pleasure circumscribed by harsh shadowy forgetting.”
Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver
Dellarobia Turnbow is a stay-at-home terminally bored young mother of two living on a farm in southern Appalachia. She discovers what looks like a lake of fire but is, in fact, millions of migrating Monarch butterflies. Climate change has caused these butterflies that normally winter in northern Mexico, to push far beyond their normal habitat, potentially to their own peril. When word gets out about this highly unusual phenomenon, an entomologist/ecologist arrives with a team of researchers and opens up a world of science and research that expands Dellarobia’s life far beyond what she ever imagines for herself.
Florida by Christine Schutt
Although this book is only 150 pages, and some of the chapters are short, Schutt has written a very intense and dark novel about the tortured life of Alice Fivey, who, at seven, suffers the loss of her father in a mysterious drowning accident. Her mother slides into alcoholism and madness and is sent to the sanitarium, lovingly known as the “san.” “Mother was sick and needed quiet, ‘a little bit of Florida’ was what Uncle Billy called it, that place where sad people went for cures.” Shuffled between dysfunctional aunts and uncles and old, nasty women, Alice escapes into books and poetry for consolation and for a sense of control in her sleep-over life. When she, as an adult, visits her mother, she describes her as “all thin hair and vacancy, tears and starts, a small clutch of bones, an old woman, grown innocent.” Nominated for a National Book Award, it is painful to read but unforgettable.
Forgetfulness by Ward Just
Ward Just is one of my favorite authors, and with this novel published in 2006, I easily can reaffirm my appreciation for him as a writer. Thomas is an ex-pat painter who did occasional work for the CIA and lives with his French wife, Florette, in a pastoral setting in the Pyrenees. They have come together later in life and have been happy. While Thomas lingers too long over wine with his former colleagues, Florette takes a walk in the mountains, and never returns. Forgetfulness turns out to be remembering—their life, his life, and perhaps the unfortunate circumstances that may have led to her disappearance. Just is a past National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize finalist.
Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
Called the book of the year in 2010, revered by the New York Times, and highly praised by Oprah, my expectations for this tome were over the top. While I liked the book overall, there were more details than I wanted to know about an individual, a family, or a marriage. Some of Franzen’s writing is preachy and repetitive, and this intense family saga goes on for almost 600 pages. Patty Berglund, the perfect mother, and her husband, Walter, a community activist and attorney, manage to bungle not only their lives but those of their children. These baby-boomers’ original intentions and ideals are lofty, but Patty and Walter fall prey to everything they have eschewed–they become self-serving, narcissistic, and shameless. Perhaps it is a slice of life in any town USA, but the characters, while memorable, are not necessarily admirable, and I felt a growing sense of impatience with the pace of the book.
Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels
Within the first three paragraphs of this book, I was captivated. An archeologist digging in a bog in Germany finds a young boy who has attempted to hide himself there. He emerges “…Dripping with the prune-colored juices of the peat-sweating bog. Afterbirth of earth.” Shortly before this, the Jewish boy had slipped into a space between the cupboard and the wallpaper so close that he scraped his eyelashes, and precisely at this same moment, the Nazis burst into his family’s apartment killing his mother and father. His sister, Bella, with “magnificent hair like black syrup, thick and luxurious, a muscle down her back” was gone. We’re only on page seven. Anne Michaels, a Canadian poet, describes this as a “biography of longing.” Can this child transcend the tragedy of his youth? It is a disturbing, powerful book that lingers long beyond the last page.
Full Body Burden by Kristen Iversen
Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant outside of Golden, Colorado, was a foundry built in the early 1950’s that smelted plutonium, purified it, and shaped it into “triggers” for nuclear bombs. A microgram of plutonium (invisible to the eye) can produce a fatal cancer and has a half-life of
24,000 years. As a child, Kristen Iversen moved with her family to a subdivision next to the plant—she rode horses through the fields, swam in the lake and drainage ditches, ate the turkeys grown on farms in the area, and not once did Dow Chemical or the Atomic Energy
Commission warn anyone about the potential health hazards or speak of the environmental contamination from years of illegal discharge of radioactive pollutants into creeks that flowed to drinking water supplies. It was shocking to read this narrative non-fiction, and I will forever feel
ashamed to have driven by the protesters years ago and not to have joined them.
A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore
After a hiatus of more than ten years, Lorrie Moore is back with her biting sense of humor and a no-holds-barred coming-of-age story. Tassie Keltjin, a twenty-year-old student at a Midwestern university, answers an ad for babysitting. Her new employers, Sarah (a chef and restauranteuse) and Edward (who has “…the face of a mouse that as it scurried somehow left the trail of a snake”) are in the process of adopting a mixed-race child for reasons obscure. Nurturing is not their strong suit. Against a backdrop of 9/11, Tassie appears dulled, passive, and self-absorbed, but her learning curve jumps sharply when her younger brother joins the army out of highschool and is sent to Iraq. “Certain moments the whole earth seems a grave. Other times, more hopefully, a garden.” I have liked everything Lorrie Moore has written, and this is no exception.
The Gateway by T.M. McNally
Sometimes when reading short stories, I can fly right through them, but with these I found myself stopping after each one thinking about the characters, the story line, and savoring the scenes and nuances. In “Bastogne,” a middle-aged man diagnosed with a terminal disease, returns to the French countryside where his father fought during WW II. In “Given,” a father sees through the shim-sham of his future son-in-law but is hesitant to share his feelings with his daughter, and in my favorite, “Gateway,” a couple travel to Paris where the wife had lived before they met. Her husband struggles with the jealous thoughts of what her life had been like and if she felt regret for her life now. These stories are full of tenderness and wisdom coupled with beautiful prose.
The Gathering by Anne Enright
As Veronica prepares for the wake of her brother who has committed suicide, she moves in stutter-steps through a haze of abject grief and dread; she wishes, too, for her own oblivion. In this extremely dark novel, she revisits real and imagined circumstances of their childhood and the ruse, used especially by their mother, to cover up the secrets of the past. Child abuse and child neglect are the cornerstones of this eloquent and moving novel. The question is asked, “What use is the truth to us now?” With the use of beautiful and stark language, this book is well deserving of the 2007 Man Booker Prize.
The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
This hardscrabble, hard-life book puts together an alcoholic, but endearing father with a bipolar, artist mother, and between them, they produce three girls and a boy. Luckily, nature triumphs over nurture because nurturing is non-existent. The father is affable enough but completely unreliable—they often did the “skedaddle” in the middle of the night to escape the police, lenders, or landlords, leaving everything they owned behind, which included tossing the treasured family cat out the window. This shocking memoir makes your own family look like the Cleavers—this is not a fairy tale but the worst kind of social services nightmare and so dysfunctional, it verges on being unbelievable.
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
The winner of the 1997 Man Booker Prize is loaded with incredible lyrical passages and startling visual images. The setting is in southern India, and the story is told from the perspective of twins who see themselves together as “me” and separately as “us.” After witnessing a traumatic event, the boy twin suddenly becomes mute, but he and his sister still know what each is thinking and feeling. Initially, you might find the names and places confusing, but persevere, as the book is magical in every way. There is a love scene at the end that, while graphic, is extraordinarily beautiful. Regrettably, this is Roy’s only work of fiction, however, her nonfiction is also powerful and includes War Talk and Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire.
Going Back to Bisbee by Richard Shelton
This book of creative non-fiction written in 1992 by a naturalist, historian, and self-described “ponderer” follows the highway from Tucson, through Sonoita, and into Bisbee, Arizona. The author laments the changes and the sprawl, but he does it with humor and a keen eye for detail. It is a loving memoir of the Southwest full of tales of the natural world and would be great to read aloud as you wound your way through this beautiful and sometimes harsh landscape.
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
A thirteen-year-old boy and his mother, to escape a deluge in New York City, slip into the Metropolitan Museum to get out of the rain, and there is an exhibit of Flemish paintings she particularly wants to see. A terrorist bomb explodes, killing his mother and badly injuring him. He stumbles through the carnage clutching the 1654 masterpiece, “The Goldfinch,” and this painting becomes his curse and his salvation. Don’t be dissuaded by the length of this book—it is beautifully written, full of insight, and completely engrossing.
A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain by Robert Olen Butler
In 1993, this collection of short stories won the Pulitzer Prize, and they follow the lives of a large population of Vietnamese families living near Lake Charles, Louisiana. Butler spent a year in Vietnam during the war; he is fluent in the language and familiar with the culture. In the story, “The Trip Back,”, a self-proclaimed “businessman” drives to the airport to pick up his wife’s grandfather who is ancient and frail and coming to the U.S. for the first time. The businessman knows his facts and figures, but he knows little of love. “I drew close to my wife, but only briefly did my arm rise and hold her. That was the same as all the other forgotten gestures of my life.” Butler’s stories are full of unequivocal tenderness tempered with memories both painful and sweet.
Half Broke Horses by Jeannette Walls
For those of you who read “The Glass Castle,” this “true-life novel” will hold no surprises. The story is told in the voice of Walls’s grandmother, the indomitable Lily Casey Smith—schoolteacher, poker player, pilot, bootlegger, ranch hand, horse trainer, and a no-nonsense mother of two. This hardscrabble woman was raised in a dugout in West Texas, and at age fifteen, rode her horse alone 500 miles to a teaching job in the middle of nowhere. Although the rigidity of her voice wears thin, I admired her determination: The harder the circumstances, the higher she rose to meet them.
Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
The last few words of this deeply affecting book are: The World Was Silent When We Died. Biafra, the setting for this stark and brutal story of the Igbo people, is a place where the “sun sapped energy and good will.” In 1967, the southeastern provinces of Nigeria attempted secession to become the Republic of Biafra resulting in a devastating civil war that lasted three years. Adichie skillfully introduces the reader to the characters: Ogwu, a houseboy to Odenigbo, a self-important university professor; Olanna, his lover, Kainene, her sister, and Richard, Kainene’s white husband. Through their eyes, the war and its horrors of starvation and unspeakable cruelty unfold. As I read this book, I was reminded again of the unforgettable pictures of starving children and ravaged countrysides in Africa—a pattern that continues today in Darfur.
The Hatbox Letters by Beth Powning
It is always a pleasure to be drawn into a book in the first two pages, and if by the third page, I’m underlining beautiful passages, I’m hooked. A couple in their early 50’s living near a river in New Brunswick have come to a peaceful and fulfilling place in their lives when the husband dies unexpectedly from a heart attack. Kate tries to maintain a semblance of a routine, but life feels meaningless and without direction. Her sister brings her nine antique hatboxes filled with pictures, letters, and mementoes from which she reassembles her childhood and the lives of her grandparents. If you like epistolary novels, Powning’s descriptions of a real and imagined past are rich and enormously satisfying even though she can occasionally slip into sentimentality.
Heaven Lake by John Dalton
Set in a city near Taipei, this novel is long and dense but well worth the time reading it. A twenty-four-year-old Presbyterian minister from Illinois has accepted a calling to go to Taiwan to teach English and bring Christ to the people. His challenge is to “outlast their ambivalence.” Vincent, the protagonist, is struck by the strangeness and foreignness of his new country, but he is earnest as well as naive. He has an affair with one of his students, Trudy, and as he says, “It was possible, Vincent decided, to know and at the same time not know his own true intentions. It was possible for all the contradictions in his life to blur. At times he thought, I could come to believe almost anything I say or do.” Mr. Gwa, a wealthy entrepreneur, convinces Vincent to travel to the northern-most region of the mainland (Heaven Lake), where he will marry a young woman with the understanding he will bring her back to Mr. Gwa. Even though Dalton often tells more than he shows, his attention to detail is extraordinary, and it captivated me.
The Help by Kathryn Stockett
Initially I felt a little squeamish reading a book written by a young white woman about African-American maids during the 60’s in Jackson, Mississippi AND in southern-black dialect, no less. But the more I read, the less it bothered me. A recent graduate of Ole Miss, “Skeeter” Phelan has come home to Jackson and wants to interview the maids of her friends—she has pitched the idea of a book about these maids’ experiences to a New York publishing house, and she soon realizes the long-entrenched rules of segregation still hold firm. Even though these black women have raised their employers’ children, cleaned their houses, prepared their food, they are forced to use an outside toilet. There’s lots of intrigue, secrets revealed, and some very funny consequences. A good quick read and a gratifying one.
High Tide in Tucson by Barbara Kingsolver
While I enjoy Kingsolver’s fiction, I find her non-fiction even more appealing, and these essays reveal this writer, and this woman, to us. She has come to peace with herself: “I hold in mind the need to care for things beyond the self: poetry, humanity , and grace.” In a particularly poignant piece entitled “Stone Soup,” she discusses her divorce and the vernacular that surrounds failed marriages. She laughs at herself as well when she sings with a “literary” rock band composed of Stephen King, Amy Tan, and Dave Barry (unique to American Booksellers Association events) and finds her throat is the size of a tiny straw. She is self-effacing, honest, and totally endearing.
House of Rain by Craig Childs
From 1000 B.C. to A.D. 1300, the Anasazis roamed the Colorado Plateau and built, among other, the great houses of Chaco, Hovenweep, Mesa Verde, and Kayenta. Childs does not see them as a wandering tribe who simply “disappear,” but as a culture who responded to an unstable climate, social turmoil, warring neighbors, and environmental strains. He tracks their journey from southern Colorado to northern Mexico by following the pot shards left behind in their kivas. This is a work of non-fiction, but it reads like a poetic mystery—the reader can feel this man’s love of the desert and the Southwest.
Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
Some writers have only one book—Harper Lee, Ross Lockridge, Jr., for example— and I’d add Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping to this list. Robinson, of course, wrote Gilead, but Housekeeping is magical, stark, and ethereal, if those three adjectives can be used together. It’s the story of two sisters whose mother becomes “extraordinary” by driving her car off a cliff into a lake in Montana. The girls grow up with their aunt, whose own skewed attitude toward the world allows the girls to formulate their own characters. This is an unforgettable book and a must-read.
How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid
From the author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Hamid uses a nameless narrator who speaks directly to the reader. The goal in this young man’s life is to escape the endless cycle of poverty by going from a DVD delivery boy to owning a bottled water business. He is smitten by a model, the “pretty girl,” who lures him and spurns him and lures him again. In the end, he realizes his life is all an illusion, and it would be best to have an exit strategy in mind. It’s not a feel good book, but it is powerful and thought-provoking.
I Hate To Leave This Beautiful Place by Howard Norman
This small and beautifully written book by the author of “The Bird Artist,” is a treasure, and one of the loveliest memoirs I have ever read. The last chapter, “The Healing Powers of the Western Oystercatcher,” needs to be read over and over. Each of the five chapters chronicles the major
events of Norman’s life—what shaped him, what gave him joy, and what almost destroyed him. From his midwest childhood working in the bookmobile, to collecting oral folk tales from the Inuit in the Arctic, to Point Reyes in California where he finds solace watching shorebirds, to his
home in Maryland, and to his farm in Vermont, Norman shares his prose and wisdom.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
Henrietta Lacks died in 1951, but her cells are still alive today and have been used for over half a century for cancer research. She is known to scientists as HeLa, but she was a poor, African-American tobacco farmer who complained of a painful womb. She was treated at Johns Hopkins, which at the time was the only hospital that admitted blacks, and was administered brutally painful radium treatments. But this book is more about bio-ethics as none of Henrietta’s family knew her cells were kept and sold and sold again—they remained poor, uninsured, and ignorant of the millions of dollars made from the cells of Henrietta’s cervix.
In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan
One of the many tenets the reader will remember about this book is stated at the beginning—Eat food, not too much, mostly plants. Pollan explores the myths of low fat in the age of nutritionism, the cult of processed food (fake food), and the ever-changing food pyramid, which as it turns out, is based on very little research. His deliverance is entertaining and informative, and if you liked “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” you will find this one equally rewarding.
In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin
In these intimate and gently linked stories, the reader is drawn into the everyday life in Pakistan where “all things can be arranged.” Whether the stories are told from the perspective of the lowliest of peasants or from the wealthiest of landowners, the complexities of a feudal society mixed with a rich and diverse cultural heritage come alive in Mueenuddin’s writing. Every story leaves a lasting impression. A 2009 National Book Award Finalist.
In the Country of Men by Hisham Matar
Suleiman, the narrator, is a nine-year-old boy who lives with his parents in Libya: the year is 1979, and Khadafy’s revolution is in full swing. The el-Dawani family is targeted as being against the regime, and the young son has to make sense out of his mother’s “illness” and his father’s mysterious and elusive whereabouts. Suleiman internalizes the brutality around him and becomes the demon child who knows only violence and suffering–including televised executions–in this totalitarian regime. Matar speaks from experience in this graphic and disturbing novel. Short listed for the Mann Booker Prize.
In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson
In 1933, William E. Dodd arrived in Berlin to serve as the U.S. ambassador to Germany. He brought with him his wife, his son, and his adult daughter, Martha. Martha was intrigued by the flamboyant soldiers of the Third Reich, and her father thought the German government was becoming more moderate and downplayed its treatment of the Jews. Obviously, this turned out to be a huge miscalculation on everyone’s part as the course of history entered the dark and evil days of Hitler’s reign. A haunting and disturbing read.
In the Land of Invisible Women by Qanta Ahmed, M.D.
I can’t recommend this book for its literary value, as it is poorly written, but it is invaluable as a glimpse into the lives of women in Saudi Arabia. Qanta Ahmed is a Muslim woman and an internal medicine doctor who is certified to treat pulmonary diseases and specialized in critical care medicine. After doing her residency in New York City, she was headhunted by a hospital in Saudi Arabia for a year’s position, not knowing what the dominant orthodox and rigid form of Islam would mean for her as a woman and as a physician.
Independent People by Halldor Laxness
Laxness won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955 for this epic story about a sheep farmer and his family living and barely existing on the moors of Iceland. Fiercely proud and fatally stubborn, the protagonist, Bjartur, values his role as an “independent man” above all else, including the lives of his wives and children. Though the story takes place early in the twentieth century, it feels timeless. Lives are built partly on myth, partly on superstition, and partly on dogged determination and loyalty to the land and animals. Laxness writes stunning descriptions that keep you anchored in every scene. When Bjartur goes off in search of a lost ewe, he encounters a fierce snowstorm. He is without food and shelter, and when he comes upon a herd of reindeer, he decides to take an animal down with the only things in his pocket–a knife and some string. As Bjartur jumps on the reindeer’s back, the deer leaps into the Glacier River. “Sometimes the cross-currents caught the bull, forcing it under, and then the water, so unbearably cold that it made his head reel, came up to the man’s neck and he was not sure which would happen first, whether he would lose consciousness or the deer would take a dive that would be end of him.” The ending is wonderful; I read the last two chapters three times. This is a classic that shouldn’t be missed.
Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai
Once in a while I read a book as slowly as possible so I can delay finishing it, and to the end I found this book rich in description and storytelling. It spans generations, cultures, religions, race, and continents, and weaves a story I thought about for weeks afterward. Sai, a sixteen-year-old orphan lives in Northern India near the borders of Sikkim, Bhutan, and Nepal with her petulant and eccentric grandfather, a retired, Cambridge-educated judge. In the early 1980’s, Nepal was struggling to become a state, and engrained hate, prejudice, and random violence against anything colonial was commonplace. Winner of the Man Booker of 2006 and the National Books Critics Circle Fiction Award for 2007 and one of my favorite books of the year.
The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer
Andras Levi grew up in a small village in Hungary and dreamed of going to architecture school in Paris. His brother, Tibor, had his sights set on medical school in Italy. The only problem with these lofty goals is that the young men are Jews, and the year is 1937. This powerful work of historical fiction is riveting all through the 600 pages and another poignant reminder of man’s inhumanity to man. While parts of the book were slightly romanticized, it was a fascinating account of Hungary’s role in WW II, the Holocaust, and more importantly, the individuals’ lives which were so profoundly affected. Don’t miss the beautiful poem at the end by Wislawa Szymborska.
Land That Moves, Land That Stands Still by Kent Nelson
In the first chapter, we are introduced to Mattie and Haney Remmel and the ranch they run in South Dakota. When Haney is killed in an accident, Mattie discovers in his desk airline tickets that reveal a secret life that to some extent explains her husband’s indifference to her. Together with her daughter, Shelley, a young runaway American Indian boy, and a slightly crazed, karma-marma woman who answers an ad for a hired man, an unusual family is formed and transformed. The characters are well developed and believable, and I particularly like these willful and determined women who find inner strength as well as strength together. How landscape, work, and commitment shape character are dominating themes, and when it comes to descriptions of land and light, Nelson is at his best. “The Indian boy was drinking, holding the nozzle of the hose so the arc of water ran into his mouth. The sunlight’s striking the water made it look as if he were drinking light.” Winner of the Mountains and Plains Book Award and the Colorado Book Award, 2004. See also Language in the Blood, All Around Me Peaceful, and three collections of short stories, Toward the Sun, Discoveries, and The Middle of Nowhere.
Life of Pi by Yann Martel
From the author’s note at the beginning of this book, I felt how personable he was; he was speaking to me in an honest and open way, and I was ready to hear the story he was going to relate. “If we, citizens, do not support our artists, then we sacrifice our imagination on the altar of crude reality, and we end up believing in nothing and having worthless dreams.” Martel asks the reader to make a leap of faith. A young East Indian boy, Piscine or Pi, and his family decide to immigrate to Canada, and on their boat are other travelers as well as animals destined for a zoo. The boat sinks, and the survivors on the life boat include Pi, a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan, and Richard Parker–a wet, very large Bengal tiger with a “head the size and colour of a lifebuoy, with teeth.” I loved the descriptions, and I loved the drama, but I had to fight constantly the notion of being “tricked.” Try to read without questioning every word and simply enjoy the adventure.
Like Life by Lorrie Moore
Moore’s writing style is acerbic, confrontational, and very funny, and the dialogue in these short stories is smart and sassy. The characters are articulate but deeply sad, estranged, falling off the edge, “loneliness grown dangerous,” but what they all have in common is a search for love and connection. In “You’re Ugly, Too,” the narrator, troubled by the technician’s reaction during an ultrasound, decides she is about to die. “…she reached inside her purse for her glasses. They were in a Baggie. Her Kleenex was also in a Baggie. So were her pen and her aspirin and her mints. Everything was in Baggies. This was what she’d become: a woman alone at the movies with everything in a Baggie.” Moore’s characters wallow in a stew of free-floating angst but in a humorous way. “The world was lovely, really, but it was tricky, and peevish with the small things, like a god who didn’t get out much.” I also loved Birds of America, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital, and Self Help.
The Lonely Polygamist by Brady Udall
I avoided this book for a long time because I wasn’t interested in reading about a polygamist, let alone a lonely one. Golden Richards, a Mormon man living in Utah in the ‘70‘s, has his hands full with four wives, three households, and multiple children. He is a kind man, a respected elder, hard working, but something is missing. He becomes involved with a woman who is not one of his wives, and it throws his basic belief systems into turmoil. Udall tells Golden’s story with such grace and humor, it’s easy to be completely captivated and sympathetic to his personal, although sometimes absurd, dilemmas.
Loving Frank by Nancy Horan
Mamah Borthwick Cheney, an educated, respected wife and mother of two and her husband, Edwin, hire Frank Lloyd Wright to design a home for them. Wright, who is married and the father of six children, and Mamah fall in love, and she leaves her husband. Divorce is not common in the early 1900’s, and Mamah further scandalizes Wisconsin society by leaving her children behind. Mamah writes, “I have been standing by the side of life, watching it float by. I want to stand in the river. I want to feel the current.” Together, they build the famous house, Taliesin, but their partnership has a tragic ending. At what price, love?
Lower River by Paul Theroux
After graduating from college, Ellis Hock joined the Peace Corps and was sent to a village in the bush in Malawi to be a teacher in an area known as the Lower River. After two years of being quite happy in this isolated area, he received a telegram saying his father was near death. The good news was his father left him his upscale men’s clothing store, but it was also the bad news. Thirty years plus later, it felt like a life sentence. When his marriage disintegrates, he decides to return to the only place he had ever been at peace and where he could be the man he once was—the Lower River. But, can he return and recapture the past?
Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
This book could easily have been edited down several hundred pages (or more) without losing the thread of the story, but it’s still an engrossing read, albeit a long one. The book is scattered chronologically, and this can be frustrating, but once the characters of this “whodunit” mystery
become familiar, the reader is swept away to the 1800’s and the gold-rush mining towns of New Zealand. Disappearances, murders, fortunes won and lost, and all manner of subterfuge won this book the Man Booker Prize of 2013.
The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean
As a docent at the Hermitage during the siege of Leningrad in 1941, Marina and others worked feverishly to move the many masterpieces of the museum to safety leaving only the frames on the walls. Despite the starvation, fear, and devastation in the city, she felt saving these paintings would ensure that her idea of civilization still existed. The book moves seamlessly between her memories of WW II and the present day where she is preparing to attend her granddaughter’s wedding. But Marina has Alzheimer’s now and is lost in the past. This is a gentle and beautiful book about the power of remembering.
The Map of Love by Ahdaf Soueif
I read this book as slowly as I could because I didn’t want it to end. From New York to Cairo, this epistolary novel covers the span of a hundred years and follows the lives of three women.
Isabel Parkman, an American journalist living in New York, has brought a trunk to Cairo to give to Amal, an Egyptian woman and sister of Isabel’s friend, Omar. In the trunk are old papers, some in Arabic and some in English, rings and a locket, and most importantly, the journal of Anna Winterbourne, a English woman living in Cairo in the 1890’s and the great grandmother of Isabel. Through these beautifully written letters full of historical background, a tender and remarkable love story unfolds. This story of enduring love, colonialism at its worst, the clash of cultures, and the rise of Egyptian nationalism all come together to make a Booker Prize Finalist.
March by Geraldine Brooks
Mr. March, a character modeled after the father in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, is a strict abolitionist and a clergyman who, during the Civil War, becomes a teacher in a freed slave camp. Through his letters home to his wife and daughters, he tells them of his experiences administering to the dying but leaves out the most excruciating details in an effort to spare them the truth. His idealism and his passions are sometimes at cross-purposes, but I felt so much compassion for this man, not only for his strong sense of morality and principles but also for his frailties. While fact and fiction may blur in this dramatic work of historical fiction, it is certainly worthy of being the 2006 Pulitzer Prize winner.
The March by E. L. Doctorow
Imagine, if you will, an army of Union soldiers led by General William Sherman moving across the South like a tidal wave, consuming everything in its path, sixty-thousand troops sixty miles wide burning, killing, raping, pillaging—this is “an immense organism with a small brain”. The vibrant cast of characters are many and varied, from Emily Thompson, the debutant daughter of a southern judge, two neer-do-well soldiers doing their best to avoid the war, Pearl, a freed slave of mixed blood, and a surgeon whose anguish, compassion, and horror at what he sees is palpable. This novel is a painful reminder of man’s capacity for brutality leveled against his own countrymen.
The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
Although I was slightly disappointed in this book, I didn’t know whether it was the subject matter or the fact that it didn’t compare to “Middlesex” which won the Pulitzer. The story revolves around Madeleine, an English major doing a senior thesis on Jane Austen, and Leonard, a biologist and an intellectual with a clinical diagnosis of manic-depression. It’s the ’80s, they are students at Brown and their focus is on angst, drugs, sex, and conjuring up every existential question they can. I have read that the storyline is a close parallel to Eugenides’ life, and maybe I wasn’t so interested in his college years, but for a basically philosophical book, I found very little I wanted to underline. What do you think?
Maus I: My Father Bleeds History & Maus II: And Here My Troubles Began by Art Spiegelman
I have never read a graphic novel before, nor did I ever expect to, and even when a friend gave it to me to read, I remained skeptical. Winner of the 1992 Pulitzer Prize, Maus is a book you will never forget. Spiegelman, in comic book form, interviews his father, Valdek, a Jewish survivor of the concentration camps. The Jews are portrayed as mice, the Nazis as cats, the Poles as pigs, and the Americans as dogs. Expect to be deeply disturbed by these “cartoons” of the terror of families loaded onto trains heading to the death camps, the unspeakable horrors of Auschwitz, and the guilt of the survivors. I stared at some of the pages for long periods wanting to follow every pencil line of grief and fear on the face of the mice. Can a drawing of a cat in a uniform be utterly terrifying? See for yourself.
Midlife and the Great Unknown by David Whyte
If you’re getting ready for a car trip, this audio CD will make the miles fly along. Whyte is a well-known poet whose thoughts on middle age and the concept of the unknown resonate with tenderness and generosity. He reads his own poetry, as well as the poetry of Rilke, Mary Oliver, Goethe, and others. Poetry, he suggests, should be read every day as an act of contemplation, a discipline to create spaciousness in our lives, and as a way of seeing ourselves anew. Whyte’s pleasing Yorkshire accent and his soft, gentle philosophy of the authentic self plus a lot of beautiful poetry is easy on the ears and on the spirit. See also his collection of poems: This House of Belonging.
Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively
“We do not remember childhood, we imagine it–we search layers of obscuring dust and recover some bedraggled shreds of what we think it was.” As a woman lies dying, she reflects on her life, lovers, children, and more importantly, on her brother. I know when I start underlining on the first page, I can expect good things. We are…“Fact and fiction, myth and evidence, images and documents.” And the nurse asks, “Was she someone?” Although this particular theme has been written and rewritten many times, Lively provides an unexpected twist. The narrator’s voice is cold and strident, but she is a complicated woman with a complicated past. The book is provocative and disturbing, and after finishing this, I was eager to find whatever else she had written. Lively won the Booker prize for Heat Wave.
My Father’s Tears by John Updike
I loved Updike’s “Rabbit” series, but Rabbit was a hard study. In these short stories, his characters are kinder, gentler people who, like Updike in his later years, are more vulnerable, compassionate, and reflective. My favorite story, “Varieties of Religious Experience,” Updike re-visits 9/11 from several different perspectives—a father visiting his daughter in New York and seeing the Twin Towers come down, a Muslim in a bar days before the attack, a man on one of the highest floors speaking to his wife when the building was hit, and a woman’s thoughts as her plane is hijacked. It is chilling and unnerving from every point of view and absolutely unforgettable. “The path of safety is narrow, it is possible to fall from it.”
The Nature of Water and Air by Regina McBride
I enjoy novels set in Ireland mostly for the tone and rhythm—somehow the sea and the salt air become almost palpable. Incorporating the Irish myth of the selkies, this highly romanticized view of the life of a tinker has beautiful visual images. Clodagh and Mare are twin daughters born to a woman whose frequent forays into the heather are disturbing and confusing. Identity, abandonment, secrecy, and the individuation between mother and child are the dominant themes.
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
It took me three times to get past the first fifty pages, and though I persevered, I feel this book didn’t deserve the predominantly positive reviews it received. Ishiguro, the author of The Remains of the Day, tells the story of three friends in a sheltered and private school in England—not at all a typical school, but one where children are raised to be carers and/or donors. They are clones devoid of a certain depth of emotion found in “normal” humans. The book is written in the first person and because of its chummy asides to the reader and the absence of much affect, I found the writing stilted and lacking in drama. I’d really appreciate other opinions on this one.
Nothing Right by Antonya Nelson
If you’re a man reading this book, make sure you’re wearing heavy armor, as Nelson’s stories cut deep into the male ego. She’s acerbic, but her wit is finely tuned and her prose, at times, is quite beautiful. In the story “Or Else”, David impresses his girlfriends by telling them he has a house (“with views shockingly symphonic”) in Telluride—he forgets to add the house really belongs to the family of a former friend. But David “…was a liar by nature, and now by long habit.” The teenage mother in the title story suffers from, among other things, postpartum depression. She laments there are so many happy pills and yet so little happiness. Adultery, loneliness, and a free-floating angst mark nearly every story in this new collection.
Now You See Him by Eli Gottlieb
Though you think you know the ending in the first few pages, the drama continues throughout the book. Told with grace and intensity of language, Gottileb does a masterful job of telling the story of two childhood friends: Rob Castor, the celebrated writer whose career flat- lines and who commits a horrific crime, and Nick Framingham, who elevates his friend to god-like status. When Rob commits suicide, Nick’s grief seems inappropriate as he lets his marriage falter, stall, and die from his passive-aggressive style of damage control. Nick’s secrets are devastating but necessary in a tragic and unavoidable way. I loved this book, and it is one of the best I’ve read this year, plus Gottileb is a Colorado writer. Here’s a last-line teaser: And each day from here on in would have that much less anguish than the day before, and would be a small stop against the forward current of regret. Because what’s past is past, right? Right?”
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
This was the first Neil Gaiman book I had ever read, and not being a big fan of fantasy, I was skeptical. After hearing a review on NPR that said reading the book felt a lot like
diving into an extremely smart, morally ambiguous fairy tale, I gave it a try. A man returns to his childhood home in Sussex to attend a funeral and is confronted by some
frightening memories of his childhood. If you’re prepared to leave logic and chronological order behind, let this small book fill you with a little magical realism.
Old Filth by Jane Gardam
The protagonist in this beautifully written novel is Sir Edward Feathers, also known as “Old Filth”. He is an old man when he is
first introduced to the reader, and in a series of flashbacks, we learn of his retired life with his wife in London and of his life as a
judge of some distinction in Hong Kong. He is born in Malaysia, but his mother dies in childbirth, and Edward is sent by his war-damaged
and emotionless father to be raised in the local village by a wet nurse, then to an abusive family in Wales, and then to boarding school
in England. Written in that lovely and sparse “stiff-upper-lip” style of British prose, I was charmed from the beginning. A New York Times
Notable Book of the year.
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
These thirteen linked stories read more like a novel, but as the writer said, Olive is too great a force to be the point of view of every chapter. She is not a likeable character, even though a part of her exists in every woman: she’s full of spit and vinegar, judgmental, irascible, and aggressive, but a woman of many conflicting layers. The setting is in a small coastal town in Maine, and Olive is the begrudging and aging wife of the perennially cheerful pharmacist and the mother of a son who, for the most part, ignores her. It is a book whose last page needs to be read again and again. Winner of the 2009 Pulitzer.
Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan
If you are at all interested in knowing how the food we eat gets from the farm to your table, you’ll love this book. The image of agrarian America is very different from reality—we have bucolic visions of cows grazing on grassy hillsides and small, neat farms, but it fact, only about four companies control most of what is produced, and that major commodity is corn. Corn is cheap, and genetically engineered to produce its own pesticide, and it is being fed to cows, pigs, and even fish. A bushel of corn produces thirty-three pounds of high fructose corn syrup and is present in much of our food. You will look differently at the meat in the grocery store and think more about the Slow Food Movement, local produce, and organic food.
On Beauty by Zadie Smith
Howard Beasley, a white Englishman married to Kiki, an African-American, has more than his share of hubris and ego. He teaches at a small ivy-league school in the East, and after a disastrous affair with a colleague and with the daughter of his arch rival, Howard drives himself and his family into emotional ruin. While not of all the characters are particularly likeable, they’re certainly memorable. There are no happy endings here with these messy and complicated lives, but Zadie Smith’s characters are always rich and colorful, and her gift of dialogue, both humorous and satirical, is captivating
On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan
After their wedding, Edward and Florence retire to their honeymoon suite, but only disappointment and frustration await them. Their courtship had been relatively chaste with Edward pursuing and Florence retreating. She struggles between joy and disgust, and poor Edward, ever hopeful, continues to fumble along. Somehow in 200 pages (and small pages they are), McEwan allows the reader a painful glimpse into the beginning and the end of a marriage.
One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson
I have enjoyed reading Atkinson’s early books, but this one I would put in the beach read, escapism category. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it: it’s clever, funny, and suspenseful, but the plot unfolds a little too conveniently and careens off in all different directions at once. It all begins with road rage followed by multiple degrees of separation. If you have a trip coming up, take it with you to read, and exchange it at the B&B for something more literary (unless you have the library book, of course!)
Orchard on Fire by Shena McKay
This rather short novel, a finalist for the 1996 Booker prize, is a coming of age story about soul mates, friendship, and connection. Two young girls, because of their youth and vulnerability, become trapped in situations they are powerless to control, and they struggle, together and apart, to bring meaning to their lives. Time and circumstances separate them, but ultimately, it is a story of love, loyalty, and remembrance. I like books with last lines that stay with me like this one: “…kilt up your skirts, plump up your pumps and on with the dance.”
The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean
There are more than 30,000 known orchid species in the world, and people have had an obsessive passion for growing, cloning, hunting, and collecting them, as well as for stealing and smuggling them. John Laroche, a self-educated plant dealer, is as eccentric and bizarre as the Fakahatchee swamp in Florida where he hunts for rare orchids. He takes the author, dressed to combat water moccasins and mosquitoes, miles into the swamps in waist-deep water to look for the ghost orchid and where “something is always brushing against you or lapping at you or snagging you or tangling in your legs, and the sun is always pummeling your skin, and the wetness in the air makes your hair coil like a phone cord.” And that’s the fun part. It is a true adventure story full of passionate and eccentric characters.
The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson
You won’t be putting North Korea on your bucket list of places to visit after reading this very dark and haunting 2013 winner of the Pulitzer Prize. Jun Do, the protagonist in this multi-layered, coming-of-age story is many things: a soldier, a kidnapper and an assassin of Japanese citizens, a tunnel rat, a naval spy, and a man obsessed with the
actress Sun Moon whose image is tattooed on his chest. Unfortunately, Sun Moon is married to the evil Commander Ga, whose identity Jun Do assumes. Unspeakable
horrors occur in the prison camps while loud speakers remind citizens of their duty to the teachings of the Dear Leader, Kim Jun Il. What is propaganda and what is truth?
Out Stealing Horses by Per Peterson
Trond Sander is a sixty-seven-year-old man who leaves the city and moves to a remote cabin by a river in Norway seeking solace and a contemplative life. He reflects back to the summer his friend, Jon, and he went out stealing horses, but this childish prank had devastating consequences. Although somewhat confusing at first as the story jumps from the present to the days of his youth, the narrative is seductive and beautiful. The translation sometimes gets a little fuzzy, but the novel was voted one of the ten best books of the year by the New York Times.
The Painted Drum by Louise Erdrich
For those who loved Beet Queen, Love Medicine, and Tales of Burning Love, Erdrich’s most recent novel will not disappoint. Faye Travers, a fiftyish woman living with her mother in New Hampshire, discovers an ancient Indian drum while doing an estate evaluation (assessing “the after life of stuff”) and, quite unethically and surreptitiously, takes the drum home. Although she never strikes it, the drum possesses a haunting, reverberating sound–the story of the drum and Faye’s story intertwine with Ojibwe myth and legend. I would have liked more of Faye’s story, but Erdrich is an articulate and thoughtful writer whose characters are always compelling.
The Paris Wife by Paula McLain
This fictionalized account of Hadley Richardson’s marriage to Ernest Hemingway explores what it must have been like to be the first of his many wives. From the beginning, Hadley is totally out of her element in the community of ex-pats living in Paris in the ’20’s, and the young couple’s dreams of living a simple life, a writer’s life, soon deteriorates into extravagance, endless drinking, and carousing. Hadley becomes pregnant against Ernest’s wishes and expectations, and their marriage quickly deteriorates. Although Hemingway eschews the lives of the rich, they feed his arrogance and his megalomania, and as he becomes more successful in his writing, he becomes more like them. It isn’t long before he abandons his wife and child in search of a different muse.
Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey
In this fascinating and involved book of historical fiction, Man Booker Prize winner, Peter Carey, takes the reader from the end of the French Revolution through the beginnings of American democracy. Olivier is a spoiled aristocrat whose life bears many similarities to Alex de Toqueville, and Parrot is an orphaned engraver who is paid to spy on Olivier as they travel through America. The writing is eloquent, smart, and funny and is Dickensian in its scope and in the richness of its characters.
Party Cloudy Patriot
Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell
I’m going to recommend listening to the CDs of these books because part of the charm is listening to Sarah Vowell’s voice. That will not appeal to everyone, however, as her voice is high-pitched with a slight whine. At least try one CD! “Party Cloudy Patriot” is the oldest one and is about Clinton’s presidency. “Assassination Vacation” is about her fascination with Abraham Lincoln, and “Unfamiliar Fishes” is about the history of Hawaii. She’s wildly irreverent, funny, and ironic, but she is also historically accurate and spends hours and hours researching her information. My guess is you won’t be able to listen to just one.
Paula by Isabel Allende
This moving and emotional tribute to Allende’s daughter, Paula, is a testimony of the depth of the bonds between a woman and her child. Paula, as a young woman about to be married, becomes ill and falls into a coma. As her mother tends to her, she tells the story of her life in Chile before and during the time when her uncle, Salvadore Allende, was elected president by a coalition of Socialists, Communists and Marxists. Husbands, lovers, exile and political unrest produce a charged and multi-layered tale. Allende’s storytelling and her willingness to share with the reader the depth of her sadness and grief are truly unparalleled and completely affecting. Be prepared to weep along with her but also to admire her courage and ability to hope in the face of terrible odds. I would recommend anything Allende has written.
A Person of Interest by Susan Choi
If you’re looking for intrigue and suspense, read this book. The protagonist, Lee, is an Asian-born computer science professor in a small Midwestern university,and after a respected colleague is murdered by a mail bomb, the FBI labels him as a “person of interest.” Even though he was injured in the explosion as well, Lee appears nervous, and his behavior is inappropriate under the circumstances. He has stumbled through his life feeling inadequate, cowardly and disconnected from his two wives and his only daughter. Loneliness and paranoia consume him until one day he receives a letter from the husband of his second wife, and here the mystery beings. See also “The Foreign Student.”
Plainsong by Kent Haruf
Reading Kent Haruf has totally changed my appreciation of the eastern plains of Colorado, not only for the land but also for the people and the small communities there. He turns ordinary people into extraordinary ones as he introduces us to a teacher trying to raise two children after his wife has left him and to the McPheron brothers, simple and seemingly uncomplicated men who work the family ranch. These are people who find joy in everyday existence, and who demonstrate a spirit of generosity and kindness I only wish could be universal. Compassion, when you least expect it, is the driving force of Haruf’s books. His prose is direct and understated, yet graceful and powerful. Eventide, published in 2004, continues the lives of the McPheron brothers and also follows a troubled and challenged family beset by the problems of poverty and ignorance. Plainsong was the 1999 National Book Award finalist, winner of the Mountains and Plains Book Award and numerous other literary prizes. See also The Tie That Binds, and Where You Once Belonged.
Prayer for the Dying by Stewart O’Nan
Even though this is short–almost a novella and a relatively fast read, the story is gripping. The protagonist in the small town of Friendly, Wisconsin, is many things to its people: pastor, sheriff, and undertaker. When an epidemic of diphtheria breaks out, it leaves behind a trail of death and suffering regardless of age or sex. Widespread panic overwhelms the town when quarantine is issued: no one can leave and no one can come in. Significant moral questions are raised, and in this case, the answers are ambiguous. See also The Names of the Dead.
The Prospector by J.M.G. LeClezio
Le Clézio won the 2008 Nobel Prize in literature, and he has been described as a gentle and sensual writer. In this dreamlike novel, Alex L’Etang lives with his family on Mauritius, an island off the coast of Africa. His childhood by the sea with his sister was idyllic. Life was easy as they roamed the sugar cane fields, explored the beaches, and gazed at the constellations. A hurricane, the death of his father, and the ensuing financial ruin of his family forced him to leave his beloved island. Written in a mesmerizing style, this book will change the way you look and feel about the sea.
The Pull of the Earth by Teague Bohlen
Bohlen teaches creative writing at the University of Colorado at Denver, and his rich and finely crafted book was the winner of the 2007 Colorado Book Award. The setting is rural Illinois, and even though the themes are familiar, Bohlen writes about the complexities of rural life, devotion to the land, to work, family and love with a fresh eye. The novel switches back and forth from one generation to another, from father to son, both burdened by family secrets and misgivings. “People say things left unfinished are the hardest to get over. But what’s often worse is what’s left unbegone.”
The Quality of Mercy by Barry Unsworth
The person who reads Unsworth’s “Sacred Hunger” prior to this novel, “The Quality of Mercy” is definitely at an advantage. This book can stand alone but knowing the backstory is a help. After a British slave ship wrecks off the coast of Florida, the crew tows the ship into an inlet out of sight. Previously, the captain had ordered the crew to throw overboard the purchased and ill, but still alive Jamaican slaves they were transporting, but the crew mutinied and killed the captain. The remaining crew and slaves (including women and children) lived for 12 years in the inhospitable mangrove swamps as equals and in relative harmony until the son of the captain, seeking revenge, finds the renegades and brings them back to England to face trial. This is a wonderfully rich historical novel, written in the mannered language of the times, and it will haunt you long after the last page.
Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow
I had not read this book for many years and, when encouraged to read it again, I was glad it had retained its appeal. The novel is a slice of history from the turn of the 20th century to World War I including the fictionalized lives of, among others, J.P. Morgan, Houdini, Henry Ford, and Emma Goldberg. Written over thirty years ago and delivered in a frank, unemotional style, it is almost like a news report–there is absolutely no dialogue, but each of the characters is vivid and memorable. The lives of the familiar and the unknown interact on some level, at some time—real or imagined—and it works. Doctorow touches on race, war, greed, poverty, discrimination, immigration, expectations, and disillusionment. Sounds just like the 21st century.
The Razor’s Edge by W. Somerset Maugham
It’s sometimes good to revisit books you haven’t read in forty years, and see if they withstand the test of time. Published in 1944, the novel follows the life of Larry Darrell who is wounded and traumatized by the death of a fellow soldier during WWI. He is engaged to a socialite but, after returning to the United States, he delays his marriage and tells his fiancée he “….wants to find out why evil exists.” He travels to Bohemian Paris, to a monastery in Germany, and to India in his quest for enlightenment about his existential understanding of his place in the universe. The narrator clearly is Maugham, and the congenial tone allows you to feel as if you are sitting by the fireplace hearing him recount this intriguing tale.
Reading in the Dark by Seamus Deane
Seamus Deane is a literary critic and poet, born in 1940 in Northern Ireland, who grew up during the time the IRA was emerging as a strong political force. This Booker Prize finalist and a New York Times Notable Book reads more like a memoir than a novel, with linked but disparate chapters. Secrets surround this Catholic family for generations—even what is left unsaid tears it apart. The history of violence and religion for both Catholics and Protestants binds them and divides them. The prose is beautiful, tender, and is very funny as well. My favorite chapters are: ‘My Mother,’ and ‘The Facts of Life.’ Well-deserving of its many awards.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid
Writing in the first person present, a young Muslim man at a restaurant in Pakistan manipulates a conversation with an American stranger. The reader hears only half of what’s said, but learns the narrator is a Pakistani who was schooled at Princeton, accepted a high-pressure job with a large corporation, and fell in love with Erica, a Manhattan socialite. Enter September 11. The monologue is dramatic, and there is a haunting rhythm to Hamid’s prose. Foreshadowing and body language figure dramatically into the text. This small novel took seven years to write and is one you’ll think about for a long time.
The River of Doubt by Candice Millard
Teddy Roosevelt was a soldier, adventurer, Rough Rider, amateur ornithologist, conservationist, and our 26th president. After losing his re-election bid as a third-party candidate, Roosevelt, to assuage his humiliating defeat, turned his attention to South America—specifically to the River of Doubt. His son, Kermit, having spent a good deal of time on expeditions in the Amazon in Brazil, persuaded his father to undertake an exploration of this unmapped and dangerous river. The American Museum of Natural History sponsored them and expected it to be scientific expedition, while Roosevelt thought of it more as a “delightful holiday.” But in actuality, his party was plagued by disease, insects, snakes, huge whitewater, hostile Indians, starvation, and the death of three of the explorers—they never knew what was around the next bend in the river.
A Rope and a Prayer by David Rohde and Kristen Mulvihill
In November of 2008, New York Times reporter David Rohde was kidnapped by the Taliban. He had been given the opportunity to interview a top Taliban commander, and though he knew this venture was fraught with untold danger, he agreed to the meeting. David, along with his driver and translator, were forced into the back of a car at gunpoint, and for seven months, they were shuttled from Afghanistan to Pakistan to Waziristan, not knowing if each day was their last. In the meantime, his wife of two months was in New York enlisting the help of the State Department, the FBI, and the CIA to search for her husband. Conflicting information ran rampant. There is a lot of detailed, historical background of the U.S.’s involvement in these countries replete with warlords, tribal leaders, religious sects, and where nothing is as it seems.
Runaway by Alice Munro
For those who love to read short stories, Alice Munro should be a familiar name. This very popular and celebrated Canadian writer has won many literary awards in Canada as well as in the United States and England. She brings to her stories believable characters with whom it is easy to feel compassion and empathy. The title story is about a young woman, manipulated and emotionally abused by her husband, struggles over the decision to leave him. Three of the stories of this collection are linked and follow the flawed relationship of a mother and her daughter. Munro puts me at ease and makes me sigh with satisfaction. See also Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, The Love of a Good Woman, and The Moons of Jupiter.
Running With Scissors by Augusten Burroughs
If you’ve ever thought dysfunction was a synonym for your childhood, read this book, and you’ll get a new perspective on what definitely isn’t “normal.” This memoir is outrageously funny but in a cringing, troubling way. Despite the absurdity and the humor of the situations, there is a profound core of sadness. Augusten’s mother is a chain- smoking, self-absorbed, crazed alcoholic, and his father has the “loving, affectionate, and outgoing personality of petrified wood.” As divorce looms, the parents seek help from a psychiatrist of dubious abilities, Dr. Finch, who has an odd resemblance to an “anything goes” Santa Claus. When Augusten is left in his care, rules cease to exist. Read with caution–this book can be brutal.
Sailing Alone Around the Room by Billy Collins
If you’re not already a lover of poetry, you will be after reading this beautiful collection of new and selected poems from the Poet Laureate of the U.S. 2001-20002. These verses run the gamut from gentle and sad to funny and outrageous, but all are touching, poignant, and insightful. My favorite poem is “Forgetfulness:” …“as if one by one, the memories you used to harbor/decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,/ to a little fishing village where there are no phones.” Read “The Dead,” “Some Final Words,”“Bar Time,” and “Purity.” The list of favorites goes on.
Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward
This winner of the 2011 National Book Award explores the days before hurricane Katrina in a desperately poor, black household of four motherless children and their boozy father in a small town close to the Gulf. The narrator, Esch, is a pregnant, fourteen-year-old who understands life beyond her years and circumstances and whose devotion to family is extraordinary. The story line is brutal and violent, but redemptive. My only complaint is the editing–while I understand the use of dialect in the narrative, I found it distracting in the text to see this, “….and has lain them on the ground,” and this misuse of lie and lay happens consistently throughout the book. Look the other way–it’s worth the read.
Saturday by Ian McEwan
It is not often that I read a book and want the rest of the world to go away and stay away until I’ve finished . McEwan’s Enduring Love, Amsterdam, and Atonement were all enticing novels, but Saturday gets the prize. The time is between 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq, and a general sense of malaise and unease pervades London. Henry, the protagonist, is a brilliant and respected neurosurgeon whose devotion to order and detail is exemplary and whose life is unfolding in ways that are meaningful to him. One morning, he awakens uncharacteristically early, and, while standing at his bedroom window, he witnesses, horrified, a plane going down and on fire. This event signals the beginning of a string of events in one day that will forever alter this life of goodness and predictability. McEwan is a master of description and imagery, and I felt spellbound reading this book for the detail of the words and for the story.
A Scots Quair by Lewis Grassic Gibbon
A Scots Quair is composed of three books, “Sunset Song”, “Cloud Howe,” and “Grey Granite.” I was told it is required reading for every child in Scotland, and for good reason, as it encompasses folktale, myth and legend. Gibbon’s writing has been compared to that of Joyce and from the first sentence to the last of this wonderful epic tale, I was completely captivated. Don’t be discouraged by the length (496 pages) or by the density of the writing. Your reward is this: “….that Change who ruled the earth and the sky and the waters underneath the earth, Change whose face she’d once feared to see, whose right hand was Death and whose left hand Life, might be stayed by none of the dreams of men, love, hate, compassion, anger or pity, gods or devils or wild crying to the sky. He passed, and repassed in the ways of the wind, Deliverer, Destroyer and Friend in one.” If you liked Independent People from this list, this book will be for you.
The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
This winner of the 2011 Man Booker Prize leaves a number of unanswered questions for the reader to ponder. Tony Webster is a man in his later years, retired, divorced, and who is neither happy nor unhappy but is learning the new emotions that time brings. He finds out that an old girlfriend’s mother has died and left him a diary, but the daughter refuses to give it to him, even though he was hoping the contents might provide closure on their love affair and the death of a mutual friend. This novella is full of wisdom, not only about aging, loneliness, and nostalgia, but about truth in memory.
The Septembers of Shiraz by Dalia Sofer
The time is post-revolutionary Iran where political and religious oppression reined. The Revolutionary Guards take Isaac Amin, a Jewish gem dealer, to prison for undetermined crimes where he is humiliated and brutally tortured. Much of the plot unfolds through the eyes of Amin’s nine-year-old daughter who buries the family papers in the garden as the rest of the frantic family slowly watches the fabric of their lives unravel. A very impressive first novel bearing a strong resemblance to the author’s experiences.
A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka
When a recently widowed 84-year-old man decides he has fallen in love with a 36-year-old Ukrainian piece of pink fluff with large mammaries, his two daughters undertake drastic and immediate action. While the father admits “the hydraulic lift is no longer fully functioning,” he declares his undying love and commitment to this doomed relationship. Convinced the woman is seeking citizenship for herself and her teenaged son, the two sisters, after years of estrangement, come together with a common goal. The back story follows the family through the tragic events of World War II and the ways it has molded them. Somehow the author is able to weave in the history and development of farming in the Ukraine. The novel is a lighter read but is both poignant and funny.
The Sirens of Baghdad by Yasmina Khadra
I found this a disturbing and emotionally difficult book to read. A young man in a small desert village far from Baghdad witnesses a senseless act of violence committed by a troop of U.S. Marines. Later, he sifts through the corpses of a friend’s wedding party who had been strafed by U.S. aircraft. His family is disgraced when soldiers burst into his home and drag his ailing, partially-clothed father into the street. Here, in these pages, is the recipe for the making of a terrorist: revenge, self-respect, and family honor mixed with a clinical madness that turns into fanaticism. See also “The Swallows of Kabul.”
Slow Man by J.M. Coetzee
Paul Rayment is a sixty-year-old man out riding his bicycle when he is struck by a car—his knee and his tibia are smashed, and the decision is made to amputate. When he awakens, he is told he will need a prosthesis, which he belligerently declines. He has no children, no family, and is compelled to hire a Croatian woman to nurse him. He then develops an odd obsession with her son. Enter Elisabeth Costello, exit the expected story line. Is this sixtyish woman his alter-ego, his conscience, his angel of death? She derides him… “You have lost a leg, I know, and ambulating is no fun; but, after a certain age, we have all lost a leg, more or less… (it’s) is just a sign or symbol or symptom, I can never remember which is which, of growing old, old, and uninteresting.” All of Coetzee’s books are a challenge and beautifully written. His best is Disgrace, which won the Nobel Prize. See, also, Elisabeth Costello if you want a real mind-bender.
Small Island by Andrea Levy
Winner of the 2004 Whitbread Book of the Year, this novel is told through the voices of four people during and shortly after World War II. Queenie is a white, British woman in a loveless marriage to boring Bernard, and when Bernard enlists in the RAF and fails to return from the war, Queenie takes in boarders. One of her boarders is a young Jamaican, Gilbert, and showing his loyalty to the Mother Country, he volunteers as a gunner in the RAF (but ends up as a driver). He is incredulous when he encounters discrimination, fear, and even hatred from the very people for whom and with whom he is fighting. In one instance, he and other Caribbean volunteers are informed by an American officer: “Everyone here has been ordered to see that your stay with us is the best welcome Uncle Sam could give to the Negroes of an ally…..You will mix with white service personnel. Have you boys any idea how lucky you are? You will not be treated as Negroes!” After the war, Gilbert brings his proud and painfully proper bride, Hortense, back to England in hopes of finding a new life of opportunity. Although the ending is a little too tidy, the dialogue is compelling and convincing.
Snowflower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See
Don’t be fooled by the simplistic title; this novel is a touching and tender story of a friendship between two women in China in the early 1800’s. This was the era of the barbaric practice of footbinding (doesn’t everyone long for three-inch feet shaped like tulips) and arranged marriages where a woman’s only sense of self derived from her ability to give birth to sons; girls were considered only useless mouths to feed. Women learned a secret written language called nu shu which allowed them to communicate only with other women. Snowflower, the daughter of a man in a neighboring village, sent her messages to her life-long friend, Lily—her laotong (more important than a husband or family)—on the folds of a fan.
The Soccer Wars by Ryszard Kapuscinski
As a reporter for a Polish newspaper, Kapuscinski followed the coups and revolutions around the world including a one-hundred-hour war between El Salvador and Honduras killing 6,000 and wounding 12,000 people over a soccer game! “In Latin America, the border between soccer and politics is vague.” The book is really a series of desperate and agonizing press releases, and for me, the sad part is the message doesn’t change for the twenty-two years and the twenty-seven wars Kapuscinski covers: man’s inhumanity to man goes on and on and whether you are in the Congo, Algeria, Angola, or the Sudan, war is a “closed circle of revenge”. How have we come so far and learned so little?
Solar by Ian McEwan
With his biting and sarcastic wit, McEwan has created another original protagonist in this strangely funny and affecting novel. Michael Beard is a Nobel Prize-winning physicist who has fallen behind in the latest scientific theories and who finds himself rather bored by it all. “He lacked the will, the material, he lacked the spark. He had no new ideas.” Just about every aspect of his life is on the skids and, for the most part, he is a cad, a despicable man. Nevertheless, McEwan has a way with language and plot like few others.
Someone by Alice McDermott
“The ordinary, rushing world going on, closing up over happiness as readily as it moved to heal sorrow.” McDermott writes of the quotidian with such skill and grace that the reader is drawn along without being aware of the drama taking place. Marie is the protagonist and so plain and dull one wonders how the story can be centered around her. She’s an Irish Catholic whose brother has chosen the priesthood, her parents are almost cliched—a beloved, alcoholic father and stern mother and yet from all this comes an extraordinary story of love, endurance, and acceptance.
South of the Big Four by Don Kurtz
Arthur Conason, the laconic and hard-working hired man, knows, if nothing else, the meaning of work. Hired by Gerry Maars, an independent and obsessive farmer, Arthur spends most of his time driving his tractor or repairing it and the rest seducing his brother’s wife or the local café’s married waitress; he appears almost amoral except when it comes to work. Set in the fertile farmland of northwestern Indiana, the descriptions are rich and detailed, although at times, I learned more than I wanted to know about plowing a field, but still, there is a wonderful sense of place and devotion to the land.
The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar
Here’s a book I bought for the title and the cover and was more than rewarded with the contents. The story is set in Bombay where a middle- class Parsi family has, for thirty years, employed Bhima, a Hindu, as their slave. She is the confidante, the cook, the maid, the shopper, the nanny, but she is never allowed to use the same dishes as the family and has to sit on her haunches rather than on the furniture. This is a book about class, human apartheid, and about what separates us and connects us. The story haunted me for weeks, especially this passage: &ldquoAll these tears shed in the world…where do they go…perhaps these tears would have value and all this grief would have some meaning. Otherwise, it was all a waste, just an endless cycle of birth and death; of love and loss.”
Stanley Park by Timothy Taylor
Nominated for the Giller Prize in 2001, “Stanley Park” is a joyful read, funny and smart, a modern morality play, and a great book for all you foodies out there. Chef Jeremy Papier opens a restaurant in Vancouver with a mouth-watering menu, but because of the pressures of a larger, thriving establishment, it teeters on failure. Jeremy’s father, an unconventional anthropologist doing research on the homeless while living himself as a homeless person in Stanley Park, adds another twist to this bizarre but very entertaining novel. Somehow Taylor even manages to include in the story the true-to-life case of young, twin brothers who were murdered in the park in the 1950’s—the case is still unsolved.
State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
Dr. Marina Singh, a research scientist, is sent to Brazil to bring back the remains of her fellow researcher, Anders Eckman. They have worked together for a pharmaceutical company who has a project in the Amazon headed by Dr. Annick Swenson. Dr. Swenson has not only obfuscated the details of Eckman’s death but also the progress of her research on fertility in women long past the age of menopause. It’s a story full of drama–interpersonal relationships, intrigue, and it complements all the horrors you’ve imagined about the Amazon.
The Story of Forgetting by Stefan Merrill Block
Written as a novel, this tale is eerily autobiographical. The author’s mother carries the gene for familial early-onset Alzheimer’s disease as does the mother of one of the narrators in the story. The young boy, Seth, watches as his mother descends into “a place where nothing was remembered and so nothing could be lost. A place where whatever she needed she had only to imagine.” He see himself as the “Mater of Nothingness,” but after she is institutionalized, he is driven to research her genetic history even though her past consists of random data neither true nor false, but the results of his findings have far-reaching consequences, especially for him. The author is young, only 26–but he writes with depth and wisdom beyond his years.
The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor
The year is 1920 in Ireland, and militant Irish nationalists have turned countryman against countryman. After their dogs have been poisoned and an intruder shot, the Gault family is forced to abandon their beloved country estate for safer ground. Lucy Gault, a precocious and determined young girl who cannot bear the thought of leaving her family home, makes a critical decision to run away. Grief stricken and in despair, the parents leave thinking their daughter has been killed in a fall from the ocean cliffs. What follows is a series of miscommunications and misunderstandings that forever alter their lives. The words “if only” take on new meaning. Trevor is the recipient of many prestigious literary awards including the Whitbread Book of the Year and was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction for this novel.
Stygo by Laura Hendrie
These linked short stories give a glimpse into the lives of tough and resilient people who make up the imagined town of Stygo set in southeastern Colorado. Hendrie portrays so well a sense of yearning and desperation. In “What Lasts,” a woman struggles to hang onto her fragile reality and is only dimly aware of sinking into oblivion. Her husband’s denial and anguish is beautifully touching as he leads her home after she had been missing in the cornfields. He “puts his arm around her and she leans into him as if blown by wind… They are one shadow with two arms and four legs and then they are nothing at all.” I love her easy use of language and images like “a gardenia’s leaving a trail of beauty behind it.” One of the best stories is “Something to Go By” – it’s edgy and volatile, but with an undercurrent of love, trust, and a need to belong. Winner of the PEN/Hemingway Foundation Award, the Mountains and Plains Book Award, and the Academy of Arts and Letters Rosenthal Award. See also Remember Me.
Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky
As the Nazis prepared to invade Paris in June of 1940, thousands of people hurriedly gathered up whatever possessions they could carry or could cram into their cars and sought refuge in small villages in the countryside. Irene Nemirovsky, a Russian Jew, had immigrated to France many years before and was a well-established and successful author. She and her family were among those fleeing Paris, and for several years, before she was arrested and sent to Auschwitz, she worked on this complex and disturbing novel. How does one co-exist with conquerors—are they friend or foe? There is a fascinating correspondence in the appendix between Nemirovsky, her husband, and her editor documenting these tragic times. This book deserved to be chosen by The New York Times as one of the top books of 2006.
Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart
This is a book of the future or what we hope is not the future. If a good friend had not recommended this novel, I never would have read it–frankly, the title and the cover didn’t appeal to me. The story takes place in a century when America is super-cyber connected. Everyone has an “äppärät”–a cell phone-like device which is able to live-stream the owner’s thoughts, conversations, and degree of “hotness.” Books are an anachronism, people spend their days shopping on their “äppärät,” and youth and life extension are vigorously pursued. Enter Lenny Abromov, a nerdy son of a Russian immigrant, who still believes in true love and those smelly, moldy things called books. Put aside the vulgarities and the crudeness of some of the passages, and look to the message.
Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan
This writer usually adds an unexpected twist in his work, and his newest novel is no exception. When Serena, a twenty-something Cambridge math major takes a job with M15, her new position is largely secretarial until she’s assigned the “Sweet Tooth” project. It’s the 70’s, and her morals are without boundaries—lying becomes second nature, and her liaisons are complicated and dangerous. While it’s not my favorite of McEwan’s novels, his use of language and the strength of his characters is always rewarding.
The Tender Bar by J.R. Moehringer
The Tender Bar happens to be a corner bar in New York City called Publicans where “drinking is the only thing you don’t get better at the more you do.” When Moehringer and his mother are abandoned by his violent father, they are forced to live, along with aunts, uncles, and five other children, with the grandparents. Uncle Charlie, the bellicose and histrionic bartender at Publicans, takes over as the father figure, and Moehringer finds comfort and camaraderie in the bar where loyalty was understood and never abused. Unfortunately, what was abused was alcohol. But this bittersweet memoir is less about alcoholism and more about where we find refuge from loneliness. Moehringer is a Pulitzer Prize winner and lives in Denver.
Theft by B.K. Loren
Willa Robbins is a young woman living in New Mexico, who has been hired by the Wilderness and Water Agency to track two re-introduced Mexican grey wolves that ranchers believe have been taking down their cattle. Her master tracker skills are required elsewhere, however, when
the Colorado State Police ask her help in finding her estranged brother who has been accused of murder and is on the lam. It’s a bold and gripping first novel from a prize-winning Colorado writer. Loren won the 2014 Colorado Book Award for her creative non-fiction, “Animal, Mineral,
Radical: Essays on Wildlife, Family, and Food,” which is next on my list of books to read.
Then There Was No Mountain by Ellen Waterston
For those who think raising children is a breeze–read this book, and for those who think raising children isn’t a breeze–read this book. From the beginning, Waterston tells us this is her story, and that her daughter’s would be quite different. Nevertheless, it is a very personal and intense recounting of her daughter’s drug abuse and addiction, and more importantly, what, why, and when things started to go wrong. How much blame can be laid on nature and how much on nurture? I found it fascinating to be totally sympathetic to the mother in one chapter and in another chapter, be completely aligned with the daughter. This book is an insightful evaluation of decisions parents must make and the ensuing consequences that often result in blame, desperation, forgiveness, acceptance, and hope.
They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky by Benson Deng, Alephonsion Deng, Benjamin Ajak
It’s long been argued that civilian populations and children, in particular, bear the brunt of sectarian violence. In the Sudan and other parts of Africa, millions of children have been killed, tortured, displaced, and sold into slavery. This is the story of three of the lost boys who were under the age of seven when they were forced from their homes. Each chapter is told from one of the boys’ perspectives and taken together, exemplify the courage, grit, and the determination to survive despite unbelievable odds. The face of war remains the same–blind to the plight of innocents.
This Beautiful Life by Helen Schulman
Elizabeth and Richard Bergamont, along with their two children, Jake, fifteen, and Coco, six, move from their settled and “normal” life in Ithaca to fancier digs in Manhattan. Richard has a new high-stress job, the kids are enrolled in exclusive schools, and Elizabeth’s career as an art historian has been put on hold. Jake attends a party where there is no adult supervision–there are drugs, drinking, and hookups. Jake rebuffs the attentions of a much younger girl, and when he gets home, he sees she has sent him a pornographic video of herself on his cellphone. He sends it to a friend, and it goes viral–the lives of those involved implode. This isn’t a book to like particularly–the writing is melodramatic (“a yummy, buttery morning”), and the characters are shallow, but it makes for great discussions, and unfortunately, it’s part of the current culture.
Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson
In 1993 while on the descent of a failed attempt on K2, Greg Mortenson became separated from the rest of his expedition. Disoriented and exhausted, he stumbled upon a small, remote village in Pakistan 800 feet above the Braldu River. During his long recuperation, he observed children sitting in a circle in the dirt for “school”–no building, no books, no pencils, and a teacher who came three days a week. The literacy rate was two percent. Mortenson vowed to come back to build a school and repay the villagers for their kindness and generosity. Through “Pennies for Peace,” and thousands of letters asking for donations, he was able to raise small amounts of money, but it was through his benefactor, a former French climber, that his project forged ahead. Mortenson believes education fosters mutual respect and tolerance even in the most hardened fundamentalists–what a concept.
Tiger Dreams by Almeda Glenn Miller
I admit I bought this book for its cover and title and was happily rewarded with its contents. Claire is a young Canadian woman who travels to India in search of her past and to heal her pain from her father’s recent death. She learns quickly that “memory is not truth,” and what she finds is a multi-layered story of her parents’ lives, as well as her grandparents’ lives. Even though it reads as a novel, the feeling is more like memoir and is cleverly delivered in text, pictures, and scenes from a documentary screenplay. Slightly dreamy, slightly mythical but always satisfying.
The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht
This wonderful book is rich in imagery, steeped in myth and superstition, and is magical to the end. The story is told through the eyes of a young woman doctor in an unnamed Balkan country still recovering from the ravages of war–she tries to understand the recent and unexplained death of her grandfather, also a physician. Her grandfather carries with him a tattered and well-loved copy of “The Jungle Book” and spins his tales of the deathless man and the tiger’s wife to his granddaughter’s endless fascination. While sometimes confusing as it shifts from legend to reality, stay with it, as it subtly explores war, allegiance, tradition, devotion, and the power of oral history.
Tortilla Curtain by T.C. Boyle
Lives become intertwined and worlds collide when one wealthy family living in a gated community on the fire-prone ridges of southern California encounters a poor Mexican family camped in an arroyo nearby. While deploring the immigrants’ presence, the wealthy are all too willing to hire them as cheap labor. The Mexican family is searching for the American Dream, and the American family is doing its best to guard it. The heart of the novel focuses on hypocrisy and the contrast between the haves and the have-nots and forces the reader to closely examine one’s own duplicities. Boyle is wonderful with dialogue, and his characters are well developed although stereotypic. See also T.C. Boyle’s Stories.
The Touching That Lasts by Kent Nelson
Although my opinion here is somewhat biased, I believe these are some of the most beautiful short stories I’ve ever read. Kent is so skillful in making his characters ones the reader believes in, trusts, and can relate to, whether it’s the father in “Rituals of Sleep” who sees his wife and his marriage slipping away or Joanette in “Ringo Bingo” whose husband, overwhelmed by over-the-top commercialism, drives off and leaves her at Costco. In “Two Minutes of Forgetting”, a man is hired to play the piano by the brother of a woman in a catatonic state with the hope the melodies would be soothing and therapeutic for her. While she remains unresponsive, the musician is the one who benefits from the therapy. I’m always sorry when the stories end as I find myself wanting more and more.
TransAtlantic by Colum McCann
This book is actually three separate stories, and while reading it, it was puzzling how McCann was going to pull it all together. He assembles a cast of historical and fictional
characters and magically makes it all work. From two aviators making the first non-stop crossing of the Atlantic in 1919, to Frederick Douglass, the abolitionist, on a tour of
Ireland in 1884, to Senator George Mitchell in 1998, in Belfast to broker peace talks— the common denominator is a family of women that touches each generation.
Travel Among Men by Kathleen Lee
This wonderful collection of stories draws on Lee’s vast experiences traveling in far-off lands. Written as fiction, the reader gets a glimpse into the cultures of China, Russia, Afghanistan, and Egypt. These places are not the typical destination resorts found in glossy travel magazines—the landscapes are desolate, primitive, and daunting. In my favorite story, “Double Happiness,” the woman writes to her ex-husband that she’s….”suffering a middle-of-no-where attack, so high up in the world and away from your life, that when you look back you get this vertigo of clarity and regret.” The stories are full of loneliness and self discovery and of “unrequited restlessness.”
The True and Outstanding Adventures of the Hunt Sisters by Elisabeth Robinson
Although I found the Hollywood references overplayed and at times very annoying, I loved the quirkiness, the humor, and the compassion of this book. When a screenwriter finds out her sister has cancer, she struggles to bring order to her life and to everyone else’s. Sound trite so far? But still Robinson makes me laugh through the sadness: “I have one word for winter camping: why?” But also this: “… life takes us like a riptide, where one minute you’re close to shore and the next you’re not, you’re way out, and the people on the beach are waving to you as they get smaller and farther away.” While certainly a lighter read (not particularly literary), I enjoyed the narrator’s journey of self-discovery and acceptance.
Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri
I’ve never been disappointed in anything Lahiri has written, and these wonderful stories will hold the reader from beginning to end. Even though the characters are mostly Bengali immigrants, she writes about the universal human condition that crosses all cultural boundaries. Her characters grow and change with her impressive command of language and nuance. My favorite stories are the last three and are linked together with beautiful prose and acute insight into the complexities of grief, intimacy, and irony.
Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand
Louis Zamperini was a star runner in the 1936 Olympics and was training for the next one when he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force. As a second lieutenant, he was assigned to a B-24 Liberator bomber as a bombardier and on a rescue mission to look for survivors of a recent crash, his own plane went down. There were only three survivors, and they lived on albatross, raw fish, and rain water for forty-seven days. When they were rescued, it was by a Japanese navy boat. Can it possibly get worse? It does.
Unless by Carol Shields
Reta Winters is a woman who has it all–a successful writing career, a loving husband, the perfect house, three lovely children. There are no upheavals, only rewards. Life is good, until the day the oldest of her three teen-aged daughters decides to sit on a corner in Toronto dressed in filthy and ragged clothes wearing a sign around her neck that reads “Goodness.” Reta leaves food in a plastic bag next to her on the street, pictures and mementos of their family, but Norah refuses to acknowledge her mother and appears catatonic. “We had failed in our effort to live our happy life. Never mind our careful arrangements. We were about to be defeated.” And this: “My Heart is Broken. My heart closed on the words, and then I swallowed.” Carol Shields is one of my all-time favorite writers, but sadly, Unless was her last book. She died in 2003 after a long battle with breast cancer. Some of her many books include Republic of Love, Stone Diaries (1995 Pulitzer Prize winner), Small Ceremonies, Happenstance, and Larry’s Party. The protagonist in Larry’s Party is a hapless and directionless man who becomes fascinated by mazes, and they, in turn, become a metaphor for his life. I laughed out loud reading the chapter entitled “Larry’s Penis.” Shields’s sense of humor is wry and subtle, and the developments of plot and character never disappoint. Read them all!
The Virgin’s Knot by Holly Payne
Nurdane, a young Turkish woman crippled by polio when she was five, weaves beautiful and intricate prayer rugs for women about to be married. Her rugs have a special significance because her father has told the villagers her hands were blessed by Allah. “Imagine the rug has a heart. It has a rhythm, a beat. Your job as a weaver is to breathe life into the knots. Feelings. Emotions.” She must keep her hands pure and remain a virgin—everyone wants to believe in the power of the virgin’s knots. All this is at risk when an anthropologist arrives looking for ancient burial chambers and falls in love with Nurdane. The story is replete with Turkish culture, myth, and superstition.
Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
Chosen as a Book Sense Pick last summer when it first came out, Water for Elephants has a violent beginning and a very intriguing ending. After the tragic death of his parents, Jacob Jankowski, a veterinary-college dropout, decides to join the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth and is hired on as the animal doctor—one of his charges is the unpredictable elephant, Rosie. The time is the 1930’s when circuses were composed of big tops, trains, animal acts, trapeze artists, and freaks: the fattest woman alive, the two-headed man, the midget. Jacob’s story is told from the nursing home as he reflects back over his ninety-some years, and the tale is captivating from beginning to end.
West of Here by Jonathan Evison
The reviews are mixed about this book, but I enjoyed it tremendously. Anyone who has been in the Pacific Northwest knows how daunting the coastal mountains can be, particularly on the Olympic Peninsula. The story takes place in the fictional town of Port Bonita, Washington, and flashes back and forth from the 1880’s to 2006. The characters span generations of families from the rough-and-tumble early explorers, the dam builders, and timber barons to the people in the 21st century whose lives are directly affected by their ancestors’ actions. At one time, the building of dams provided jobs, but now some of these dams have to be torn down because they devastate the salmon runs, and the once pristine landscape is scarred from clear cutting–the story of a culture forced to reckon with its own mistakes. He has another book, “All About Lulu,” which I look forward to reading.
What the Thunder Said by Janet Peery
The setting of this novella is dust-bowl ravaged Oklahoma in the 1930’s, where Etta and her sister, Mackie, live with their father on a dying piece of land laid waste by drought, wind, fierce electrical storms, and endless dust. Etta searches for any way to escape her oppressive circumstances no matter what the consequences, and Mackie, obedient and steadfast, sweeps, plugs the holes in the walls with rags, and tries to ignore her sister’s taunting hints of her parentage, but each in her own way tries to evade the hopelessness and despair of her life.
When A Crocodile Eats the Sun by Peter Godwin
The author is a journalist who has written for The New York Times and National Geographic, among others. He was born in Zimbabwe to farming parents who had moved from war-torn Europe to Rhodesia, where racial hatred, murders, and kidnappings were a part of daily life. Under the governance of everyone’s favorite dictator, Joseph Mugabe, “war vets” began arriving on white farms and terrorizing the families, stealing food, and threatening the workers. As if this weren’t enough, Godwin finds out the true reason his parents refused to leave their land and their home. Another heart-breaking story of Africa where “…progress is a paradox, a rocking horse that goes forward and back, forward and back, but stays in the same place, giving only the comforting illusion of motion.”
Where Rivers Change Directions by Mark Spragg
This beautifully told memoir of growing up on the Wyoming/Montana border leaves a lasting impression. Spragg’s strong allegiance to a landscape of mountains and plains, to hard work, to cowboy toughness, and to respect for family is poetically and lyrically rendered in this coming-of-age story. There are no tulip festivals in Wyoming, but the author turns this harsh and unforgiving land of relentless wind into a thing of beauty. I loved this book for its gentleness and for its honesty.
Where the God of Love Hangs Out by Amy Bloom
I have always enjoyed Amy Bloom’s novels and short stories. The theme of her books is about love and its dark side, and these linked stories and a novella follows the same line. Before Bloom was a writer, she was a therapist, and consequently, she treats her characters in non-judgmental tones, whether the issue is rape, incest, or adultery. Although the circumstances in the relationships aren’t always credible, the characters are richly developed.
Wild by Cheryl Strayed
I was prepared to read this book as “chic lit” but was pleasantly surprised at the insights this young woman gained on her quest to walk the Pacific Coast Trail from the Mojave Desert in California to Oregon. Grieving from the death of her mother, addicted to drugs and alcohol, divorced and dangerously promiscuous, Strayed was at rock bottom. She knew nothing about backpacking, nothing about endurance or commitment, and yet she kept walking, kept learning, even though it was often two steps forward and three steps back. Her own anger was her worst enemy, but I give her credit for her tenacity in the face of often overwhelming circumstances.
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
This winner of the 2009 Man Booker Award chronicles the lives and times of Sir Thomas Cromwell and King Henry VIII and all the players in-between. It is historical fiction at its best. We all know the story of the Tudor king’s confrontation with the Catholic church, but Mantel brings it alive with crisp, humorous, and absorbing details. In the history books, Cromwell’s reputation was evil incarnate, but Mantel’s spin is quite different–Sir Thomas comes across as noble, earnest, and far too accommodating.
The World is Flat by Thomas L. Friedman
Whether or not you believe globalization is a useful world view, this book gives the reader the Big Globalization Picture. With the ascendancy of the PC, fiber-optic cables, and work flow software, there has been a flattening of the playing field. No longer do the United States and Europe hold the winning hands–look to China, India, multinational companies, and outsourcing as the wave of the future. The United States has fallen behind in international rankings for science and math, and we are no longer leaders in innovation and creativity. Friedman argues that excessive fear of others makes us smaller and isolates us, and he makes a strong case for becoming global citizens. Read this!
The Worst Hard Times by Timothy Egan
For nearly thirty years, thousands of sod busters secured government loans and brought their families to the high plains of Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, and the Texas panhandle where they dug up the native grasses and planted wheat. Although they had been warned of the risk of drought, the migration continued. They endured dust, wind, floods, and fire. Enormous clouds of dust full of electrical charge rolled over the prairies and blotted out the sun–they were called “black blizzards and had an edge like steel wool. This is a cautionary tale to which we should all pay heed.
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
“Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it.” On that premise, Didion, from the moment before to the year following, recounts her husband’s fatal heart attack. Not only does Didion deal with this grief, she also has to cope, at the same time, with the death-threatening illness of her daughter, an only child. Her reaction to his death is clinical at first—“information is control”—as she reads his autopsy report, revisits his medical history, and reports on the exact chronology of events. But as the year goes on she writes of her rage, her sense of meaninglessness, the void, the now forever absence of her partner of forty years. “Life changes fast. Life changes in an instant. You sit down to dinner, and life as you know it is over.”
The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers
“(The War) didn’t care about objectives or boundaries, whether you were loved by many or not at all. While I slept that summer, the war came to me in my dreams and showed me its sole purpose: to go on, only to go on. And I knew the war would have its way.” As a veteran of the Iraq war, Kevin Powers writes what he knows, and he writes it beautifully, although it is painful and disturbing to read. Two young privates who have formed a deep friendship in boot camp are part of the platoon whose mission is to take the small city of Al Tafar. A soldier may physically survive the ravages of war but never emotionally. This book will always haunt me.
You Remind Me of Me by Dan Chaon
This intense novel begins with a chilling description of a six-year-old boy, Jonah, being brutally mauled by the family’s Doberman. Scarred for life both physically and emotionally, Jonah discovers he has an older, half brother, Troy, who his mother had given up at birth. Obsessed with making a connection with the only family he has left, Jonah makes every inappropriate gesture to become a part of his brother’s life. Jonah is dark and disturbed, and lies are piled upon lies until he totally loses track of what truth is. He wonders at one point if he can “unlie” himself. Chaon is also the author of Among the Missing which was a finalist for the National Book Award.
11-22-63 by Stephen King
This is my first Stephen King novel, and I approached it with some trepidation—I don’t read horror and murder mysteries—but I found this story of time travel very engaging. When Jake Epping falls through the rabbit hole and enters the world of 1963, he has the opportunity to
change world events. If he stops the assassination of President Kennedy, can he then prevent Robert Kennedy’s death, the Vietnam War, and Martin Luther King’s death? The novel is rich with historical background, and the writing is fluid and sophisticated, although I sometimes grew
tired of the asides that appeared unnecessary to the plot.