Occasionally I feel the urge to blog about a book I have just read, but there is always a little voice in my head that says,”no, Kate- so many people who read this blog couldn’t care less what you have read or what you think about it, you silly twit.” So I thought I would add a page, that no one is obligated to look at, where I could satisfy my literary urges with impunity. If you are a reader, please browse at your leisure. If not, what are you doing here?
To further my 2012 goal of reading more books, I will start my bookshelf with books I have read this year.
The Table Comes First- Family, France, and the Meaning of Food– Adam Gopnik
I first fell in love with Mr. Gopnik after reading Paris To The Moon, a hilarious account of his experience living in Paris with his wife and young son. This new book continues his love affair with France, but adds two more passions to the mix: family and food. This book is smart and informative, but with a good dose of humor thrown in to keep it from getting too heavy. Being a Francophile and a foodie, I ate this book up!
Pictures at an Exhibition– Sara Houghteling
Continuing my Paris obsession, I read this historical novel about a Jewish art collector and his son who return to Paris after WWII to find their gallery empty and burned. The son is determined to locate some of their lost treasures, and this is the story of his search. Not a great book, but a good one. I particularly enjoyed the setting, which was my own neighborhood in Paris.
The Art of Hearing Heartbeats– Jan-Philipp Sendker
Oh what a lovely and lyrical story! An adult daughter travels from New York City to Burma, in search of answers to her father’s disappearance. Her only clue is an old and never-sent love letter her father wrote to a woman in Burma. What she learns will forever change her understanding of her father and of love. This is a book to savor and hold close long after the final page.
Rules of Civility– Amor Towles
Set in New York City in 1938, this book reminded me of The Great Gatsby, except that I actually cared about the main character and didn’t skim any chapters! Katie Kontent is a secretary who , through smarts, wit, and serendipity, manages to move into the upper echelons of NYC society. I really enjoyed this debut novel.
The Sense of an Ending– Julian Barnes
I had heard a lot about this novella which won the 2011 Booker Prize, and was happy to make it my first purchase at Shakespeare and Co. in Paris. If you have read other Booker Prize winners, or other books by Julian Barnes, you know that this is not breezy beach reading. Barnes gives us a tightly- bound story that explores the mysteries and unreliability of memory. Why do we remember what we do, and how true are those pictures in our minds? And perhaps more importantly, why do we forget what we do? This book is at times painful to read, which is testimony to its raw truthfulness about what we all know about living, aging, remembering, and forgetting.
Hinterland- Caroline Brothers
I think I must have picked this book on a whim, or maybe it was the quote” …a story that all of us should read” on the cover. I wouldn’t recommend it, but I’m glad I read it. This is a very sad story of two Afghan brothers who have fled their ravaged country and are trying to get to England. They run into many obstacles, usually human beings who want to take advantage of them, and only one of them actually makes it to England alive. I’m glad I read it because it makes me a bit more sensitive to all the marginalized homeless in Paris.
Coral Glynn- Peter Cameron
This brand new book was a gift, and I was excited to see it reviewed in the International Herald Tribune after I received it but before I read it. The reviewer liked it, and so did I. It’s an interesting story, with a Gothic flavor, of a young nurse who moves into a dreary old house to take care of the dying matriarch and then marries the heir. I’m still trying to figure out exactly what happened in this misty grey tale involving murder, psychologically wounded adults, and a stern housekeeper. I read it in a day!
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal- Jeanette Winterson
I’m not sure what it says about me that I love stories about dysfunctional families. Fiction or true, they never fail to make me appreciate what I had as a child and what I have now, and (of course) to make me feel better about myself as a parent. Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal is truth that at times is stranger than fiction. Jeanette Winters was adopted by a woman afflicted with both depression and religious fanatacism, which combined to make her mother woefully ill-equipped to be a mother, and Jeanette just plain woeful for most of the 16 years she lived with her. Like Glass Castles, this book is sprinkled with enough humor that one can get through the misery without having to take to one’s bed for a week upon finishing it. I loved it. But I’m kind of funny that way.
On Canaan’s Side- Sebastien Barry
The first words that come to mind to describe this book are so over-used in book reviews that I fear they are meaningless: heartbreakingly beautiful, lyrical, elegaic. But those are the words I want to use for this incredible story of 89-year old Lilly Bere, as she tell it herself, over 17 days. Some of the passages in this book will make you want to stop and read them again, in the vain hope of searing them into your brain or your heart. Consider the second and third sentences of the opening chapter: “What is the sound of an eighty-nine-year-old heart breaking? It might not be much more than silence, and certainly a small slight sound.” Lilly fled her homeland of Ireland, leaving behind her entire family, and went to America. Her life there was full of sorrows and losses and wrongs, but she describes it to us with a resigned, calm, eloquence. I loved this book.
Bringing Home the Birkin- Michael Tonello
A friend recommended this book after my foray into the world of Hermes, and I am so glad she did, because it’s not a book I would have been likely to read on my own. This is the true story of an American man who moved from the northeast US to Barcelona without a job, and ended up becoming the King of the Hermes mountain on Ebay. Mr. Tonello is a very funny man, and his description of traveling across Europe, charming Hermes employees into selling him the elusive and highly sought-after “Birkin” bags, which he promptly re-sold on Ebay to women who have more money than most of us will every dream of having, is priceless. Not a heavy read, obviously, but a highly entertaining one.
Wild- Cheryl Strayed
This is another great memoir about a woman who undertakes a challenge for which she is in every way unprepared: to walk 1100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, from the Mojave Desert to Washington, and to do it alone. She decided to do this, not because she was an experienced hiker in need of another challenge, but because she was searching for peace following the death of her mother , the disintegration of her marriage, and a recent pattern of reckless behavior. I loved this story of her physical and emotional challenge, and the characters who entered her life along the way.
The Light Between Oceans- M.L. Stedman
I loved this story of a lighthouse keeper on a remote island off of Australia and his young bride. When a rowboat carrying a dead man and a crying baby washes ashore just after Isabel’s baby was still-born, the couple makes a decision that will affect many lives, most of all their own. This achingly beautiful novel put me in the hearts of all the main characters, allowing me to feel their angst, their happiness, and their utter despair. Isn’t that what we want a novel to do?
Paris, Paris– David Downey
Guess what this book is about? I really enjoyed reading this collection of essays on different neighborhoods in Paris. My enjoyment was definitely heightened by my familiarity with the city, however, and I am not sure that someone who was not familiar and besotted with Paris would enjoy it as much.
Gone Girl– Gillian Flynn
Sometimes I just get in the mood for books about psycho people who live psycho lives . This book, just out, has gotten so much buzz I couldn’t wait to read it. And then I couldn’t wait to finish it- swallowed it whole in just a few days. Here is a married couple who deserve each other. They both are pretty screwed up, but Wife is so screwed up she spends years planning how to disappear and frame Husband for her murder. Crazy stuff. Good read. Now I feel so wonderfully normal.
Heading Out To Wonderful– Robert Goolrick
This novel follows Goolrick’s popular Reliable Wife, and I really liked it. It’s the story of a mysterious stranger who arrives in a small Virginia town and proceeds to charm everyone there without revealing anything about his past. The first half of the novel describes the process by which Charlie Beale makes himself at home in this town, and the second describes his descent into pain and disgrace. Interesting commentary on organized religion.
In The Shadow of The Banyan– Vaddey Ratner
This auto-biographical novel tells the sad story of a family caught in the genocide committed by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Not an easy read, but worth it.
I really thought I wanted to read more about Julia Child (despite having seen Julie and Julia and having read My Year In France) but it turns out I didn’t. This is a big book- just over 500 pages- written by a man who was fortunate to have spent several weeks accompanying Ms. Child in Italy in her later years. I was primarily interested in her time in Paris, and I did enjoy that bit. The rest was quite repetitive of other books about her, and I lost interest. It was fun to see the “bawdy” side of her, though. Apparently her appetites extended beyond the kitchen. Who knew?
Me Before You– Jojo Moyes
It took me awhile to get into this book, and I never loved it. It’s the fairly predictable and not terribly well-written story of a young woman who takes a job as the personal assistant of a bitter young quadriplegic . I finished it, but it took some effort. Your teenaged daughter might like it, though.
Just Kids– Patti Smith
This book by the famous artist/singer Patti Smith won the National Book Award, so clearly many people enjoyed it more than I did. I actually must confess that I only read 3/4 of it before giving up. It’s the story of her time in the 60’s with Robert Mapplethorpe. Not my thing. Meh. Is it me?
Afterwards– Rosamund Lupton
I had high hopes for this new book by the author of Sister, Sister, which I enjoyed. This one, however, was tedious and boring. Mother and teenaged daughter both floating between life and death- mother with a brain injury and daughter severely burned when school was set on fire. They both can talk to each other and float around , listening to and observing the living world tend to their bodies and try to solve the mystery of who set the fire. And if I, who doesn’t read mysteries or solve riddles, could figure bits out before she revealed them, then they weren’t much of a surprise. Really didn’t like this book. Sorry.
A Land More Kind Than Home– Wiley Cash
Finally- a novel I enjoyed. I have been in a slump, in case you hadn’t noticed. This is a great read, particularly for the author’s first time out of the chute. Family feuds, family wounds, religious zealots, revenge- all the makings for a good story, and perfect for the small town, North Carolina setting. Thank you, Mr. Cash, for rescuing me from my reading doldrums.
The Lonely Polygamist– Brady Udall
This book has been around for awhile and received a lot of press, so you probably already know about it. The first thing that comes to mind about this book is that it’s long. Really long. There were times I was so ready for it to end I could have thrown it across the room. But the story of a flawed man and his four wives and twenty-seven kids is just compelling enough (at least at times) to keep the book in my hands. Laugh-out-loud humor and piercing pathos flow throughout this story, allowing us a peek into a lifestyle that most of us know little about. I think I would have liked it better if it had been about a third shorter. But I read it all, which says something.
Paris, My Love– Eloisa James
This was a quick read and a fun one. Eloisa lived my Paris life (or an approximation of it) for a year just before I got here, which made this book so enjoyable for me. I don’t know that someone who was not very familiar with Paris, or at least somewhat obsessed with it, would get into it. Most of the book is a series of Eloise’s facebook entries while she was in Paris with her family. But she is a writer (“Mary Bly” of romance novel fame) and so her facebook entries are more literate and entertaining than most. A few essays about her experience were included, as well. I have recommended it to other ex-pats here in Paris, but not sure if I should recommend it to those who have not had the experience. I loved it, myself.
Paris, My Sweet– Amy Thomas
Yeah, there is a theme here. Amy from New York City spent some time in Paris working for Louis Vuitton (!) and exploring as many pastry and chocolate shops as she possibly could. During that time she thought a lot about her life in New York City, her life in Paris, and how they compared. I skipped some of the sections on NYC because I really wasn’t interested, but I enjoyed the rest of it. Again, much of her experience paralleled mine, so I was attracted to it. If you love Paris and her sweets, you should love this book, too.
A Sudden Country– Karen Fisher
I tend to enjoy stories about settling the West, and I really enjoyed this piece of historical fiction that describes the journey of an American family to Oregon. It is also the story of a Hudson Bay Trader who meets up with the family and helps them through the difficulties they encounter. While most of the books I have read recently I read quickly (either because that’s the kind of book it was or because I wanted to get to the end), this one I read slowly, as it needs to be. I think it would be a good choice for January, when the hectic pace of the holidays is over and the weather is cold and rainy, and you can take it word by word and feel the hardships and the pains of those brave settlers.
Dear Life– Alice Munro
I am one of those people who really enjoys good short stories. Alice Munro is a master. These stories are all set in her native Canada, and many involve trains and rural landscapes. Good stuff. The final four are semi-autobiographical and are the best.
A Big Storm Knocked It Over– Laurie Colwin
A big fan of Laurie Colwin, I was happy to finally be reading this novel, which had been on my shelves for years. Although full of her razor sharp wit, the story never came together for me. I kept waiting for something big to happen, and it never did.
Both Ways Is The Only Way I Want It– Maile Meloy
Another collection of short stories about domestic situations- loved all of them.
A Thread of Grace-Mary Doria Russell
This historical novel set in Italy at the end of WW II traces a handful of interesting characters who are part of the true story of how Italians saved the lives of 43,000 Jews . I had a hard time keeping the characters straight, but then, I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed. I recommend it!
State of Wonder– Ann Patchett
I am a huge fan of Ms. Patchett and have read everything she has written. This newest is the story of the development of a pharmaceutical in the Amazon. It stretched belief, at times, but then, what about the Amazon doesn’t?
The Twelve Tribes of Hattie– Ayana Mathis
After two false starts of books I had to give up on, I was so happy to find myself engrossed in this new debut novel. The book has garnered no shortage of press, thanks in part to Oprah, who chose it for her most recent Book Club selection, but it deserves the attention. The first chapter introduces us to Hattie, a smart, strong, black woman, in 1920, and the following chapters chronicle a member of her family through the generations, ending in 1980. As the family struggles with the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, and lingering racial injustice, the characters shine through and linger in your mind after the final chapter is over.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry– Rachel Joyce
I took this book on Spring Break and gulped it down in big, satisfying chunks. This is the sweet story of a middle-aged, newly-retired Englishman named Harold, who embarks on an spontaneous walk across England to see a former co-worker who is dying of cancer. Beyond that, though, it is the story of how we all survive in this world by putting one foot in front of the other, appreciating everyday miracles, and encouraging each other along the way. I can’t tell you how much I loved this book. Please read it!
The End Of Your Life Bookclub– Will Schwalbe
I felt very lucky to read this book just on the heels of the previously mentioned book, because most other books would have left me feeling let down. Not this one. This is the true story of how a son (almost exactly my age) connected with his amazing mother in the doctor’s offices and chemo rooms where she spent the last two years of her life. Although they had always been close, their shared love of books gave them an outlet for communication at a time when they were both pre-occupied with her terminal pancreatic cancer and what it meant for their family. If you have been fortunate enough to have shared a love of books with your parent or child, you will appreciate what a gift this was to Will and his mother. The fact that I had recently read many of the books they shared was icing on the cake. Wonderful, wonderful book.
Benediction– Kent Haruf
I was absolutely crazy about two of Mr. Haruf’s previous two books, Plainsong and Eventide, and so it was not surprising that I was a little let down by this one. It’s good, mind you, but not as good as the others. Like Plainsong and Eventide, Benediction is set in the small town of Holt, Colorado. Seventy-seven year-old “Dad” Lewis is dying of cancer, and as he reflects on his life, we are introduced to a host of other characters who have been part of that small town life, and who all have stories and wounds of their own. The Lewis’ only son, Frank, disappeared from their life after being shamed for his homosexuality. Rev. Lyle, who is sent to Holt after being kicked out his Denver church for defending a homosexual preacher, stirs up controversy in Holt when he speaks out against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. And then there are several different women who tend to the Lewis family in their time of need and have their own stories. Worth a read, for sure, but didn’t move me as much as the other two books.
The Yellow Birds– Kevin Powers
In his debut novel, Powers writes of what he knows- the brutality of fighting in the war in Iraq. The story goes back and forth in time, with the young soldier experiencing war in the present, and then in the next chapter remembering it after he is home. Poignant and brutal, this is a war story I enjoyed .
The Death of Bees– Lisa O’Donnell
Some may find this story of two sisters who bury their alcoholic, abusive and neglectful parents in their backyard too dark, but I was enthralled with the light of the story- the love and kindness shared among many of the characters. The two sisters, who are devoted to each other, are cared for by a delightful old neighbor who realizes that the parents are not around. He attempts to shield them from the their grandfather, whom they don’t remember ever meeting before, but who appears on their doorstep hoping to ask his daughter for forgiveness. The girls keep their parents fate secret, for fear of being separated by the State, until the neighbor figures out the meaning of the bones his dog keeps digging up in the garden. Sounds crazy- I know- but it is a great story.
And The Mountains Echoed– Kahled Hosseini
I loved The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, and I also love this, his third novel set in Afghanistan. This one is told through the prism of sibling relationships, and grapples with some of the same themes of his other novels, including familial loyalties and obligations, set in the war-torn Afghanistan. I thought the first half was better than the second, but the whole thing kept me enraptured. Mr. Hosseini, who learned English as a teenager, totally inspires me.
Wave– Sonali Deraniyagala
I found this memoir on a list of NPR’s “Memoirs With Heart” I came across this summer. The author was vacationing in Sri Lanka on Dec. 26, 2004, with her parents and her husband and her two small sons, when they were all washed out of her life in a tsunami. This tragedy happens in the first few pages, and the rest of this small but powerful book chronicles her painful journey through the blackness of her despair into the light on the other side. Spellbinding.
The Illusion of Separateness– Simon De Booy
This is a wonderful little book written as a series of vignettes about 8 (or so) characters who are all connected by some random act of kindness . The stories are told between 1944 and 2010, between New York, Hollywood, and France, and are all powerful. I loved this optimistic reminder that no one is ever really alone.
The Leopard– Jo Nesbo
My favorite book by Jo Nesbo was The Snowman, and it scared me to death. Mr. Nesbo writes serial murder mysteries and they can get CREEPY. I didn’t like this one as much as the others I have read, and I’m not sure if it’s because I read it over too long a period or what. It didn’t scare me as much as they others, nor did it hold my interest as completely.
The News From Spain– Joan Wickersham
This a collection of 7 short stories with a common theme of that mysterious thing we call love. And I did love it. Each story contains the line “the news from Spain” , and each one is terrific. Thanks, Alice, for recommending it to me.
Philistines At The Hedgerow– Steven Gaines
This is a book I have had lying around for a couple of years. I think my mom must have passed it on to me because it had an appointment card from her doctor in it. Anyway, it’s a non-fiction book about the larger than life characters that make up the history of the Hamptons. I have never been to the Hamptons, but I still found it very interesting, because I always find outrageous people interesting, and this book is full of them. If you had any connection to the Hamptons at all, it would be even more interesting. Definitely one of those “truth is stranger than fiction” books. Very entertaining. Thanks, mom.
This is a murder mystery set in a Benedictine monastery during the time of Lord Cromwell. I didn’t like it that much, and figured out the bad guy way too soon. It was interesting to be reading it while I visited Mt. Saint-Michel, though, as the abbey felt much the same as the description of the monastery.
The Aviator’s Wife– Melanie Benjamin
Historical fiction about the life of Ann Morrow Lindbergh. She was a woman of means and brains, and she found herself in a marriage in which she was completely overshadowed and overpowered by her famous husband, Charles. A great story about a woman I didn’t know much about.
An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination– Elizabeth McCracken
I knew I liked Ms. McCracken because I so enjoyed The Giant’s House, one of her novels that I read long ago. Something brought her to mind again and I downloaded her raw, heart-wrenching but also very honest account of her first pregnancy, which ended in the tragic stillborn birth of a son. She is a smart woman and a great writer, and her story is another reminder that even through the most cruel pain and darkest days, we humans keep going forward. Because we have to, that’s why. Read this book in a day and loved it.
Someone- Alice McDermott
Oh man I loved this book. Marie is an Irish American girl in the 20’s when the story opens. She leads a very ordinary life, but her story will reel you in as though she were a serial killer or a glamorous movie star. Marie is the woman next door. She is your mother’s best friend. Or your best friend’s mother. She is wonderful. Read. This. Book.
The Emperor of All Maladies– Siddhartha Mukherjee
I finally got around to reading this Pulitzer Prize winning tome on the subject of cancer. The author is an oncologist and does a great job of bringing to life the history, treatment, and description of cancer. I just learned that Ken Burns is turning the book into a PBS documentary in the spring. I can’t wait!
The Lowland– Jhumpa Lahiri
This book was nominated for both the Booker Prize and the National Book Award, and so garnered a lot of buzz when it came out. In addition, the author’s two previous books were fabulous- The Namesake and Interpreter of Maladies- so I was eager to read this one. This is the story of two very different but very close brothers who grew up in Calcutta. The older brother is daring and brash, and becomes involved in the Naxolite political movement. The other is quiet, hesitant, and the parent pleaser. He moves to America to study. When the older brother is killed by political violence, the younger returns to India and offers to marry his newly-widowed sister in law, whom he had never met before returning to Calcutta. She accepts, and their story unfolds. Not my favorite book by Ms. Lahiri, but a good read, nonetheless.
The Maid’s Version– Daniel Woodrell
This short book is dense with emotion, drama, and the essential of small-town community. The maid is 92 year old Alma, whose life was forever changed by a dancehall explosion that killed 49 people, including her beloved younger sister. The explosion was no accident, but no one was ever charged with the crime. Alma is sure that she knows who did it, and she tells her story to her 12 year old grand-son, who spends one summer with her in that small Ozarks town.
This Is The Story of A Happy Marriage– Ann Patchett
Ms. P is one of my very favorite fiction authors, but until this publication I was unaware that she also has written many essays and magazine articles. Fortunately for me, a wise soul encouraged her to compile this selection of essays for publication, and they are wonderful. Although the title essay is about the tortuous journey to her current marriage, the collection topics vary from the death of her beloved dog, Rose, to her adult relationship with a nun who taught her first grade. Funny, poignant, and smart, these essays were delightful morsels of Ann Patchett.
The Interestings– Meg Wolitzer
This book was on all sorts of “best of” lists at the end of 2013, so of course I had to check it out. Sadly, after reading 75% of this long novel, I had to admit that I did not find it interesting or best. This is the story of a group of people who meet each other as teenagers at an arts camp and remain friends through adulthood in New York City. The story traces how their relationships change as their satisfaction, success, and fortunes change. Usually I love stories that focus on the characters- I don’t need a lot of action – but this one didn’t do it for me.
The Goldfinch– Donna Tartt
The other big book with big buzz last year was this one, the long-awaited third novel by Donna Tartt. I turned to this one when I finally cast aside The Interestings, and was immediately pulled into this story of art, drugs, antiques, and the search for authenticity in things as well as in people. When the book opens, young Theo and his mother are caught in a terrorist attack on an art museum in New York City. Theo’s beloved mother dies, but Theo makes it out alive, and with a small but famous masterpiece, The Goldfinch by Fabrisius, under his shirt. The rest of the story follows Theo and his attempts to hide, protect, and then return the art he unwittingly stole. The middle section, set in a seedy and deserted housing development in Las Vegas, was too long for my taste, but was never dull. I really liked this book and what it suggests about art and humanity.
Good Lord Bird– James McBride
If you read The Color of Water you no doubt remember James McBride and his power with words, which he artfully displays in this winner of the National Book Award. Mr. McBride provides a literary rendering of John Brown, the abolitionist. In McBride’s hands, Brown is a comic figure, who speaks in non-sensical Bible talk, prays for hours at a time, and is completely committed to his cause of freeing the slaves. Along the way he kidnaps a black boy whom he mistakes for a girl, names him “Onion”, and takes him under his oft mis-guided wing. The story is full of humor, often a tad dark, but seemed a bit redundant to me at times. I was happy to have read it but happy to finish it. Get it?
Mastering The Art of French Eating: Lessons in Food and Love from a Year in Paris– Ann Mah
Well of course I loved this! France, food, and recipes- what more could a girl want from a book? The author and her husband were thrilled with their ex-pat assignment to Paris, until it was quickly changed to Baghdad. Ann remained in Paris for the year her husband spent in Iraq and dealt with her loneliness by researching regional culinary specialties of France. Delicious.
Glitter and Glue– Kelly Corrigan
I have been a huge fan of this author since her first book, The Middle Place. In this book Kelly talks about her childhood relationship with her mother, her dreams for herself when she was twenty, and how both changed after her experience as a nanny for an Australian family that had recently lost its wife/mother. Corrigan is funny, poignant, and entirely relatable. She speaks truths about motherhood that stab you in the belly with their rightness. She makes me laugh and cry and want to be her best friend. Please, Kelly?
Pure Gold Baby– Margaret Drabble
I had never read any of Ms. Drabble’s numerous books, although I was aware of her reputation as a formidable author. When she published this one the reviews all mentioned that she had been writing for a long time but that this was her first in a long time. This story is about a single mother, Jess, and her special needs daughter, Anna. The most interesting aspect of the book is that the narrator is a friend of Jess who had known her for a long time but was not her closest friend, as she repeatedly reminds the reader. The effect is to make the reader question the truthfulness of her description Jess and Anna and their lives together. Not truthfulness in the sense that she would consciously misrepresent the story, but that she might not really know the story. I enjoyed the story, no matter whose it was.
The Antagonist– Lynn Coady
I learned about this book from several bloggers who raved about it. I just finished it and I concur. The story told in a series of emails written in a three-month period by a 40 year old man, Rank. He has just discovered that a college friend has published a novel in which Rank is a character portrayed in an unsympathetic light and without a lot of detail. Rank is furious that the stories he told his friend about himself and his difficult times were used without his consent and made him look worse than he was. Rank’s revenge is to find his friend’s email and barrage him with his own story, the “right” story- the one that should have been told. But by the end Rank realizes that reality is a foggy notion, and no two realities are the same. Amazing story telling by a woman author who managed to describe adolescent males and their friendships with uncanny realism. Bravo.
Mary Coin– Marisa Silver
Sometimes I absolutely do choose a book by its cover. Like this time. The cover is the iconic Depression era photograph, “Migrant Mother”, by Dorthea Lange. I have always loved that photograph of the mother with the worried look and the dirty fingernails. Marisa Silver provides us with a wonderful fictionalized story of who this woman is and how she ended up the subject of a famous photograph. Silver uses some factual details about the photographer and her subject, but then lets her imagination tell their story, which was a good one.
Her– Christa Parravani
At some point during the last year NPR published a list of “memoirs with heart”, and this book came off that list. Christa lost her identical twin to a drug overdose, after trying tirelessly for years to save her from that fate. This is a story of love, hurt, pain, rage, self-destruction, and ultimately, triumph. Because love is stronger than death, Christa survived her pain and her loss and gave us a story with heart.
Lucky Us– Amy Bloom
Wow. I hated for this short book, chock-full of surprises, adventures, sadness and joy, to end. Not only is Lucky Us a great book, it begins with what must be one of the best opening lines of all times, “My father’s wife died. My mother said we should drive down to his place and see what might be in it for us.” How can you not be hooked? Read a few pages more and you discover that Eva’s father is not divorced from her mother. In fact, you learn with Eva that he has another family, much wealthier, in which he is a college professor and has another, slightly older daughter, Iris, who is 16. And then guess what happens? Her mother leaves Eva there, with her suitcase, and never returns for her. Eva joins her father’s “other family”, and her previously ordinary life becomes anything but. The vitality of this book is abounding, and touched my heart. Amy Bloom has given us a gem of a story. Lucky us.
We Were Liars– E. Lockhart
I must confess that I am not usually a big fan of young adult lit, which probably explains why I was not bowled over by this book, while many of my bookish friends loved it. Cadence Sinclair Easton comes from an old-money family that owns a private island off of Cape Cod. The island is the setting for family reunions each summer, during which Cadence is inseparable from her two cousins and their friend (and her romantic interest), Gat. The summer that the cousins are 15 years old, Cadence suffers a head injury in an accident that leaves her with intermittent amnesia and migraines. No one in the family will tell Cadence what happened in that accident, and she has to piece it together herself- a slow, painful process. The twist at the end is brilliant, but if I told you I loved the book, I’d be lying.
When Paris Went Dark- The City of Light Under German Occupation, 1940-1944– Ronald Rosbottom
This nonfiction book, published 70 years after the liberation of Paris, was accessible and added much to my understanding of those difficult years in my adopted city. Although it does go into the political details necessary to the events, I loved this book because it described the day to day life of ordinary Parisians. The uncomfortable tension between the Germans and the Parisians was well described, and was one of many aspects of an occupied city that I had never considered.
The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher- Hilary Mantel
If Mantel’s name sounds familiar it’s because she is the author of Wolff Hall and its sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, both of which won the Man Booker Prize. She is super smart and writes beautifully. This collection of short stories reminded me of why I love them, and why they are sometimes intimidating. With short stories, there isn’t much foreplay. You don’t get to be indulged and coaxed into the story. Bam: you’re there, and you either love it or you don’t. I confess that I definitely wasn’t there with the first story in the collection; in fact, I quit it (which is pretty sad to do to a short story). I was understandably concerned that the rest would leave me cold, too; but they didn’t. Some were very good, and I really loved the final story for which the collection was named.
Small Victories– Anne Lamott
I adore Anne Lamott. Hilariously wise, irreverent, smart, and brutally honest- Anne tells her own stories of failure, grace, and redemption, and they resonate with millions. Also, Operating Instructions and Bird By Bird are invaluable guides for new parents and writers, respectively.
The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy– Rachel Joyce
This is a companion to a book I loved, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harrold Fry. In that book, Harrold sets off across England on foot in order to visit an old friend before she dies. This is the story of the old friend, who is waiting for him in a hospice, where she and her companions are spending their final few weeks of life. I guess it is no surprise that I found this story to be too sad and grim, and even a bit tedious. I wanted to like it, but I ended up wanting it to be over.
The Girl On The Train- Paula Hawkins
I needed a break from serious literature and so picked up this popular mystery said to be like Gone Girl. It served its purpose, as it definitely is not a heavy work, and I enjoyed it for that reason. An unreliable narrator and surprise ending made this an interesting enough read. It would be a good “beach read”.
Outline– Rachel Cusk
I came across Rachel Cusk in a book blog, I think, and was curious to read one of her many works. This is a very interesting novel. There is not really a traditional plot- it is more a collection of chapters describing the moments and details of several days the narrator spends in Athens. If you require a lot of action, this book isn’t for you. I quite enjoyed it and would like to read more of her work.
Everything I Never Told You-Celeste Ng
This book garnered lots of praise and blurbs so I had high hopes for it, which, sadly, were not met. This is the story of a family, like all families, with secrets and struggles which are revealed slowly as the story progresses. The golden middle child dies under suspicious circumstances at the beginning of the book, and each family member’s reactions to her death are bound up with past memories, wounds, and experiences. I found the book heavy-handed and unbelievable. It’s a quick read, though, and many people clearly enjoyed it.
Pieces of My Mother- Melissa Cistaro
The author’s mother packed her bags and left her two siblings, her father, and her when the author was five years old. Although she bounced in and out of their lives after that, she was never a reliable force in the family’s lives. Ms. Cistaro, now a mother of young children herself, has always been plagued by the fear that she, too, had the capacity to abandon her family. She has also struggled to understand why her mother didn’t want their family, and what she was doing during her long absences. Ms. Cistaro goes to her mother’s house as she lay dying of alcoholism, and during those agonizingly slow days she discovers some never-sent letters that her mother wrote to family members, including herself, which give her new insights into the depth of her mother’s struggles and pain.
Fates and Furies-Laurent Groff
I just finished this great, big, and great big book and I loved it! It’s all over the place, getting lots of buzz, so you probably know that this is the story of a marriage told in two parts: the husband’s telling (“Fates”) and the wife’s telling (“Furies”). Brilliantly written, full of twists and secrets, this story stayed in my head for days after I turned the last page. Don’t miss this one.
A Map of Betrayal– Ha Jin
I loved a previous book by this author entitled Waiting. I was not quite as taken with this novel, but I didn’t hate it. This is the story of Gary Shang, a long-term Chinese Communist mole who infiltrates the CIA. The story of how he gets lured into the spy world and torn away from his new wife and his country was compelling. The other half of the book, the alternating chapters of his grown daughter’s investigation into her father’s mysterious past, is not as interesting or as believable.
Skippy Dies– Paul Murray
I finally got around to reading this novel, after hearing it recommended over at least a year. It’s a tragicomedy, not a genre I frequent, and it’s good. Seabrook School is a Catholic boys school in Dublin, and the main characters are 14 year old boys in that awkward hormonal time. In the opening pages, Skippy collapses and dies while eating doughnuts, though it turns out he hasn’t actually eaten any before his sudden death. The book then goes back in time and tells us about Skippy and his friends, the administration of Seabrook, and how Skippy arrives on the floor of the doughnut shop. The comedy is provided by the hilarious banter of the boys, who are obsessed with sex and drinking and sex and women and sex. The tragedy comes in the form of an eating disorder, a cutter, pill takers, a dying mother, and child molestation. Funny but sad, like much of life.
Sweetland– Michael Crummy
This mournful story of a remote and scarcely populated island off of Newfoundland is best read during winter, preferably in a drafty room, like my chilly London flat. Moses Sweetland is an old man who has lived his whole life on the tiny island named for his ancestors. When the government offers the inhabitants a large sum of money to relocate off the island, Moses is the only hold-out. Unfortunately, the government’s deal requires that everyone take it, or no one gets it. Moses finds himself very unpopular with his life-long neighbors until he finally agrees to the deal. His memories of crucial life events explain a lot about his reluctance to abandon the island, and draw a character who is hard to forget.
The Green Road– Anne Enright
Ms. Enright is a whip-smart writer who is drawn to the multi-hued theme of family. Like her previous work, The Gathering, this novel explores how families and relationships within them change as siblings become adults and parents become child-like. It’s painful stuff, but written in a way that even when it makes you flinch, it warms you as only family can do.
Did You Ever Have A Family– Bill Clegg
A family tragedy leaves June feeling alone in the world. As she works through her grief, we hear how others were affected by the horrific event that killed a group of people on what should have been a wedding day for two of them. I thought it was an enjoyable but pretty light book and was surprised to read that it was considered for the Booker Prize. It was an OK book, but not a Booker Prize winner.
The Incarnations– Karen Barker
Wang is a taxi driver in Beijing who begins receiving mysterious letters by someone claiming to know him from all of his past lives. The letters tell fascinating tales of people who lived in China as long ago as 654 AD. These tales are interspersed throughout the chapters of Wang’s present day life and his struggle to solve the mystery of the letters. I thought this book was remarkable and loved every page.
A God In Ruins– Kate Atkinson
This is a companion book to an earlier novel, Life After Life, and both are fantastic. Both are set primarily in England during WWII, and follow the lives of Ursula and Teddy Todd, who are brother and sister. Masterful literary tricks with time and lyrical prose make these both books to remember.
Nora Webster– Colm Toibin
I loved this quiet book about Nora, an Irish woman who finds herself widowed and raising two boys at an early age. This is the story of how she works through her grief and comes into the life she never knew she could lead.
We Are Called to Rise- Laura McBride
I finally got around to reading this story, which is set in Las Vegas and told from alternating perspectives of five different characters who are destined to intersect . Heartbreaking but also very real, I loved this tale of an Iraqi vet who returned home with a broken body and spirit, a ten year old immigrant child who is wise beyond his years, and a middle-aged woman whose husband has just left her and whose untreated PTSD threatens to ruin his life and others’.
I’m Supposed To Protect You From All This– Nadja Spiegelman
This memoir delighted me for several reasons. One- it’s the story of four generations of mothers and daughters- always a fascinating relationship for me. The author’s mother was a successful publisher of children’s books and also an art director for the New Yorker. Her father was a Pulizer prize winning cartoonist, but played a much less significant role in her life. Two- all three mothers are French, and half of the story is set in Paris. Three- the power of memory and the ties between mothers and daughters is illuminated in vivid relief.
The Underground Railroad– Colson Whitehead
This novel has garnered such abundance press and praise that you probably began hearing of it before it even arrived on the shelves. Oprah’s selection of it as a book club read actually pushed up its pub date. Damn, that woman got powers. Anyway, even if you think you never like Oprah picks, you must read this story of a young slave named Cora who runs away from her cruel master and takes the Underground Railroad to what she hopes is freedom. But this train is no metaphor- it actually runs through underground tunnels to help slaves escape. Lots of brutality, obviously, but told with a measured calmness that allows you to get through it without wanting to self-immolate from shame and outrage. Soooo good.
Eileen– Ottessa Moshfegh
Reviewed in the NYT in August of 2015, I had not heard of this novel until just before reading it. Eileen is a 24 year old woman living with her abusive, alcoholic, paranoid ex-cop of a father. She lives with him out of duty, but her only active duty appears to be keeping him supplied with the gin he requires to remain in his stupor. Eileen works in a correctional facility for young men, and is a complex and flawed character, to say the least. The story is narrated by a much older Eileen, and takes place over the seven days that finally result in her finding her freedom from the abysmal existence she was leading. Dark, smart, and funny- I ripped through this one.
Crow Lake– Mary Lawson
I had this 2002 book on my TBR list long ago, but was just reminded of it recently and am so happy I was. The Morrison family lives in rural Ontario, farmers who barely make ends meet, just like all their neighbors. When the parents are killed in an accident, the four kids are left to fend for themselves. This is a beautiful story of love and landscape and hardship and redemption. These characters will walk with you for some time after the last page.
All My Puny Sorrows– Miriam Toews
I kept reminding myself that this was not a memoir, despite the fact that its prose and title would suggest otherwise. This is a very smart novel about a Mennonite family in Canada and their desperate struggle to keep Elfina, the older sister and gifted concert pianist, from fulfilling her wish to kill herself. Dark, yes, but also liberally sprinkled with humor and pathos and incredible prose about family, love, life, and death. Don’t let the dark subject matter scare you off- this is one amazing book.
A Man Called Ove- Fredrik Backman
A perfect read for the busy weeks leading up to the holidays, this is a sweet and funny story of a curmudgeon named Ove who doesn’t want to live without his beloved and departed wife. His careful plans to end his own life are foiled time and time again by neighbors who need him and grow to love him. I am looking forward to seeing this movie and hope it can do justice to this great book.
The Life Writer-David Constantine
I came across this book by chance, as it did not get a lot of press here. The author is British and has written short stories in the past, including one that formed the basis for the film 45 Years. A slim novel that packs a big but quiet punch, I adored this book. In a nutshell, after Katrin’s husband Eric died of cancer she began reading his old letters from a former lover, Monique. Katrin decides to learn all she can about Eric’s life as a young man (well before she knew him), including his affair with the glamorous and French Monique. Her obsession with the project leads her down a dark path that convinces her that their shared life was less than what he had lived before her.
Mischling– Affinity Konar
The ambiguous title is a German word for a person of mixed heritage, like the identical twin narrators of this harrowing story of Mengele’s torturous experiments performed on Jewish prisoners who interested him. This is fiction that is, sadly, based largely on the horrible truth of Mengele’s actions at Auschwitz. The twin girls tell their story in alternating chapters, and the horror is softened by glimpses of hope and love that weave through it. The end is a bit contrived, but a welcome outcome to a horrendous story.
Love Warrior– Glennon Doyle Melton
I was very late to the “Momastery” party, the blog written by Ms. Melton that garnered her a huge following. This is her second book, and tells her story of addiction and surviving the devastating news that her husband Craig had been cheating on her throughout their marriage. This is a very raw and brave book, and describes how very hard it is to reveal our wounds to the world, and to do the work needed to heal those wounds. I really liked this book, and I passed it on to my daughter, who also enjoyed it very much.
The Association of Small Bombs– Karan Mahajan
I never would have picked this book up had I not seen it on the New York Times Top 10 of 2016 and been intrigued. This is a very well written story about the aftermath of an act of terrorism in Delhi. Unlike other similar stories, this one shares the effects of the bomb on victims, perpetrators, and those innocents accused of the act. Excellent but not a happy read, so plan accordingly.
The All Of It– Jeannette Haien
Ann Patchett brought this book back into print and wrote the forward to it, so of course I was intrigued. It’s a quiet but powerful novel set in Ireland- the story told by an old woman to a priest. That’s all you need to know. Thanks, Ann.
The Excellent Lombards– Jane Hamilton
This novel was another recommendation by Ann Patchett, but unlike The All Of It, it is a current publication. I was ready for a lighter read, and this story of a family of apple growers, narrated by a spunky girl named Frankie, fit the bill perfectly. Humor, pathos, and courage are all here. Read for yourself what makes the Lombard family so excellent.
The One In A Million Boy– Monica Wood
I think I first heard about this book on the podcast All The Books, but it has shown up on several end -of -year lists and is so worth a read in this new year! This story of a peculiar eleven year-old boy and his unlikely friendship with Ona Vitcus, (104 years old) will make you smile through your tears. When “the boy” (as he is called) dies unexpectedly, his mostly-absent but well-intentioned father (Quinn) shows up at Ona’s house and tells her he plans to complete his son’s scout assignment to help her with chores for the next several weeks. Quinn’s life is forever changed by this friendship, in part by what he learns about his son from Ona.
On Living- Kerry Egan
One of my goals for 2017 is to alternate reading fiction and non-fiction. Kerry is a hospice chaplain and a graduate of the Harvard Divinity School. In this small book she shares with us some of the conversations she has with her dying patients and their families. Among these stories, she also intertwines her own story of a drug-induced post-partem psychosis she experienced after her first child was born. She and her patients have much to say to those of us fortunate enough to be alive and healthy today.
Barkskins– Annie Proulx
I typically do not list a book that I do not finish, but because I read 75% of this 600 page book, I feel entitled to include it. Annie Proulx is a wonderful writer who brings a sense of place to her stories like no other. This tome begins in the 1600’s with two immigrants to the “New France” region of Canada and traces their ancestors until 2013. The hard wood forest of that area is in important character in the book, as it provides livelihood and fortune to the human characters, as well as frequently contributing to their demise. Although I did not finish it, this book is a compelling story illustrating the damage we do to our environment when we view it solely as a means to our financial success.
Am I Alone Here?– Peter Orner
The title of this book is featured on an illustration of a bright red paperback blooming with hand written tabs and sticky-notes along its top and side. The largest tabs include the book’s subtitle, “Notes On Living To Read and Reading to Live”. This is a unique book, part life-story and part thoughts on books Mr. Orner has read and which have stayed in his memory for various reasons. He weaves together to two elements of his book in a delightfully seamless way. I really enjoyed the book, despite having read almost none of the books he found relevant to his life.
Perfect Little World– Kevin Wilson
Wilson’s first novel, The Family Fang, was well-reviewed, although I never read it. Perfect Little World is a fun and engaging story of a single woman who finds herself pregnant at 19, with no foreseeable help from her family or her baby daddy. She gets selected to participate in a new, experimental “Infinite Family” commune with ten other couples expecting their first children. The group lives together in a modern complex out of the city, and all responsibilities for the infants are shared. The children who their biological parents are at age 5, and the group commits to stay together until the children are ten. The story is funny, poignant, and full of energy.
Rising Strong– Brene Brown
I received this book as a party favor from a dinner where the author spoke. Brene Brown is an extremely engaging speaker and and her energy and enthusiasm are equally apparent in her written words. I enjoyed this book about the importance of acknowledging our pain, working to understand where the pain comes from, and then taking the steps necessary to work through it, bringing us closer to “wholeheartedness”.
Homegoing– Yaa Gyasi
I heard this young debut author speak at the Nashville Book Festival and knew I had to read her book. Yaa was born in Ghana but raised in Alabama, and her first novel is quite impressive. Two half-sisters, Effia and Esi, are born in different villages in eighteenth-century Ghana. One sister marries a British slave trader and lives in the castle at Cape Town. The other is sold kidnapped into slavery and held captive in the dungeon of that same castle before being shipped to the United States. The two never meet, but the descendants of the two sisters take turns telling us their stores in alternating chapters of the book. The result feels more like connected short stories than a novel, but for the most part, it works. I look forward to seeing what else Yaa Gyasi has in store for us.
The Brand New Catastrophe- A Memoir – Mike Scalise
The author is just 24 years old when a tumor on his pituitary ruptures, leaving him with virtually no pituitary and no associated hormones. The rest of his life he will have to learn to monitor and maintain synthetic hormones that are now missing. This is his story of a medical catastrophe, and also how it affects his relationship with his mother, who has always taken center stage with her own medical issues. Although I had read good reviews of this book, I never warmed to the author and was happy to see the story end. Meh for me.
The Mothers– Brit Bennett
Another amazing literary debut, this book is not just a gorgeous cover. I loved this story of a black community in contemporary Southern California. The characters were vivid and memorable, and their triumphs and betrayals, losses and faithfulness spoke volumes about the real nature of friendship and family.
Traveling With Ghosts– Shannon Fowler
In this memoir, Shannon takes us with her on her physical and emotional journey through grief. The author (a marine biologist) and her fiance were vacationing in Thailand. He was holding her in the beautiful knee-deep water one afternoon when he suddenly dropped her and ran up on the sand, where he collapsed. Minutes later he was dead, having been stung by a box jellyfish. The timeframe of this book shifts between the days surrounding his death and her subsequent time spent traveling alone and attempting to figure out how to live her life without him.
Pachinko– Min Jin Lee
I knew very little about the history of Koreans in Japan, but that did not hinder my enjoyment of this family saga. Sunja, a Korean woman, finds herself pregnant and unmarried in early 1900’s Korea. She is rescued from her shame by a tuburcular priest who offers to marry her and take her to Japan to start a new life. The story follows the lives of her family in Korea through 1989. I loved the strong characters, and particularly the strong female characters portrayed in this book.
Books For Living– Will Schwalbe
I have a particular fondness for books about reading. I loved Schwalbe’s first book, The End Of Your Life Book Club, in which he writes about his experience of sharing books with his mother in her final months of living with cancer. In this book, he talks about what different books have meant to him at pivotal times in his life, and about how books have illustrated particular life truths to him. Schwalbe has a delightful voice- accessible and relatable with a quiet and sometimes wry humor.
Autumn- Ali Smith
This is a book, the first of a planned four-volume set named after the seasons. It is smart, funny, poignant, and written in a fresh and non-linear way. At its heart, this is a story of a friendship between an 8 year old girl and a much older man, a friendship that lasts over many decades. It is also a story of life and death, the passing of time, what changes and what remains. I can’t wait for Winter.
Salt, Sugar, Fat- How The Food Giants Hooked Us-Michael Moss
I have been meaning to read this for a long time (it came out in 2013) because I am very interested in Big Food and how they have invaded our grocery shelves, pantry shelves, and medical records. The book is depressingly interesting, with insights into the machinations of Kraft, General Foods, and the like. I found myself skimming to get through it, though, as it is denser than I would have liked,
Transit– Rachel Cusk
I loved Cusk’s previous book, Outline, and Transit raises similar questions about marriage, childhood, change, and motherhood. These are definitely untraditional novels, though, and don’t appeal to everyone. This one is a series of conversations the narrator has with random people she comes across during a few weeks of her life. Very smart, with dark humor and difficult truths, I enjoy Cusk’s writing very much.
Praying for Sheetrock- Melissa Fay Greene
I cannot remember where I heard of this book, a 1991 National Book Award Finalist and true account of McIntosh county in coastal Georgia. Civil rights came slowly to this county, which had been controlled by the same white sheriff for thirty-one years, until he died in 1979. Sheriff Poppell had figured out how to throw just enough bones to the Negro population that they would not complain about the unjust (and illegal) treatment they received, and would even vote for him when he came up for re-election. Finally a black man challenged the sheriff and the system and changed life in McIntosh county forever. This was an interesting read and I particularly loved the long quotes by aged black people who had lived in the county forever.
Anything Is Possible– Elizabeth Strout
I loved Olive Kitteridge, Ms. Strout’s first smash hit novel, and I intended to read My Name Is Lucy Barton, her last novel, but never got around to it. This newest novel brings Lucy Barton and her siblings back, but tells much of their story through the neighbors who grew up in the same small town. Quiet and character-driven, I was charmed by this story and now can’t wait to go back and read the first Lucy Barton novel.
Commonwealth– Ann Patchett
This newest novel by my hero Ann Patchett is loosely based on her own blended and dysfunctional family (the one she was born into). Four parents and six kids come together after an affair rearranges their respective families. Their adventures, secrets, and wounds are revealed to the world when one of the daughters, then in her twenties, has a relationship with a successful author and tells him of her childhood, which he then turns into a smash novel and movie. This book is full of sadness and humor and failings and triumphs- just like a good novel about life with humans should be.
The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley– Hannah Tinti
This is a rollicking story of Samuel Hawley and his daughter Loo, making their way through a difficult life without Loo’s mom, who was killed when Loo was still a baby. Samuel has been on the wrong side of the law for most of his life, and the tales of his past escapades are told in alternating chapters with the story of his and Loo’s lives when she is a teenager and he is trying to earn an honest living. I really enjoyed this tale of love, pain, loss, and mistakes.