Thursday, June 19, 2008

The 2008 List: Top Picks

The top picks weren’t as obvious this year: no Glass Castles or Eat Pray Loves emerged. But I picked a few – two because they did get a few mentions; another from last year that I happen to know many of you enjoyed; and an old one that I loved and am imposing on you:

Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult. Several of you mentioned this, and Picoult seems to come up a lot. This particular novel is about a high school shooting. “I haven't read anything that great recently but can't put this one down. Good summer fiction.”

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks: This one also got a few votes. “I just finished this. One of the most interesting, well-written books I've read in a long time. She's a masterful writer and tells a terrific story.” And: “I am in the middle of Brook’s latest and am totally captivated. As she has in her other books, the characters are quickly real to you and important. But this one is a mystery, really, about tracing the history of an ancient book. So far I love it, but I have always loved her books!”

Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Revin. This was on last year’s list, and I know many of you have read it since. If you haven’t, do. It’s a wonderful book about a guy who builds schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan. For those who don’t love travelogues (like me), let me give you permission to skim some of that in the beginning. (The mountains are really super craggy. That about sums it up). The writing is not always elegant, but it’s about such a wonderful character – a force of nature himself – and you will find it incredibly inspiring.

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. It’s a little late to call this a “hot book,” considering it was published in 1859. Last year I mentioned it as one I planned to read because of Nora Ephron’s rhapsodic endorsement here. Ephron wrote, “Days pass as I savor every word. Each minute I spend away from the book pretending to be interested in everyday life is a misery. How could I have waited so long to read this book? When can I get back to it? Halfway through I return to New York to work, to mix a movie, and I sit in the mix studio unable to focus on anything but whether my favorite character in the book will survive. I will not be able to bear it if anything bad happens to my beloved Marian Halcombe.” This is EXACTLY how I felt reading this book (except the bit about sitting in a studio mixing a movie, since I wasn’t doing anything a tenth as glamorous). I could not put this book down.

The 2008 List: New(ish) Fiction

Ahab's Wife or the Star-Gazer by Sena Jeter Naslund. “I didn’t see this on your list and it’s one of my favorite books!!”

The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein. “I know it's a Starbucks book, but I am really enjoying it. It’s fiction, narrated by a dog.”

The Attack by Yasmina Khadra. Go to Amazon to find out more, but here’s a bit: “Amin Jaafari, an Israeli-Arab, is a contented man. Happily married and a respected surgeon, he has chosen to heal, not to fight. Suddenly his world explodes. His beloved wife is killed in a suicide bombing, and the police believe she was the bomber. Drowning in grief, Jaafari attempts to make sense of what he finds impossible to believe.”

The Best Day of Someone Else’s Life by Kerry Reichs. Gotta plug the local authors! (Kerry’s a Washington lawyer). Looks like chick lit with an “always the bridesmaid…” theme, and supposedly some deeper messages than the average product of the genre.

Blessings by Anna Quindlen. “…low-brow but is engaging and has big themes.” (This one is almost an “old favorite.” I think it was published in 2003.

Body of Lies by David Ignatius. No, not another book bashing the Bush Administration, but a post-9/11 spy thriller novel by the Washington Post columnist that many of us know and read.

The Commoner by John Burnham Schwartz. “Interesting fictional account of the life of Empress Michiko. I love this type of story, romance, contemporary and historical fiction of a fascinating culture all in one. Well written too!”

The Devil in the Junior League by Linda Francis Lee. “Good non-thinking book for the beach. Southerners, in particular, will appreciate this. ‘No diamonds before 6 p.m.’”

Family Matters by Rohiton Mistry. The author of A Fine Balance (which was an Oprah book club selection) tells the story of a multi-generational Parsi (small Indian minority) family in Bombay dealing with love lost, fortunes unrealized and death and changes. Really good, especially if you are interested in ethnic stories, India, etc. This is also a borderline “old favorite” – written in 2003.

Good Grief by Lolly Winston “It was an entertaining book about a woman's first year as a widow and how she fell apart and came back together. It was fiction, but, as widow myself, I appreciated her sense of humor and insight that must have come from other widows!”

Hunting and Gathering by Anna Gavalda. “Such a totally happy, deeply satisfying read if one wants to believe the world is ultimately a good place. Characters are very real, and for all their strangeness they are very compelling and you root hard for them through the last line.”

Ideas of Heaven by Joan Silber. “This ‘Ring of Stories’ delighted me with its clever links and layered meanings. It’s an inquiry into spiritual and sexual longing—how people use the two for similar ends—or not. The language is gorgeous and inspiring. My book club loved it.”

Inheritance by Natalie Danford. “Italy (Urbino, no doubt, was the draw for me, as it's an incredibly beautiful Tuscan village with masses of interesting history). World War II. Family secrets. A friend of a friend wrote this book, her first, and it's a gem and a quick read.”

The Last Chinese Chef by Nicole Mones. “Reading it right now and really like it!” It’s about an American widow who goes to China to find out whether a child there was fathered by her late husband.

Luncheon of the Boating Party by Susan Vreeland. “France. Historical novel that chronicles the backdrop to this famous Renoir painting. A fun read for those who liked Girl With A Pearl Earring or Madame X (of the same ilk as this book).”

Mango Season by Amulya Malladi “India. Arranged marriages. Culture clash. Coming of Age. An Indian woman I met at a party recommended this book to me after we had a long discussion about arranged marriages in different cultures (fyi, she claims India has the highest success rate....).”

A Model Student: A Tale of Coeds and Cover Girls by Robin Hazelwood. “A brilliantly written beach read because robin is Yale grad so smart and so funny and it was a great story.” It’s fiction about a 17-year-old who is a model while also a student at Columbia University. Great look at the world of modeling.

A Most Uncommon Degree of Popularity By Kathleen Gilles Seidel. “Funny book about private school life in Washington, DC. I think it may be based on a fictional Maret [a Washington, DC private school]. Lots of familiar things here!” (I note that this author has written many other books.)

The Nightwatch by Sarah Waters. “This is a mesmerizing story of young people in Britain during the Second World War. Ingeniously told backward, it takes characters where they are and answers the most intriguing of questions: How did they get here? Satisfying to the last line, Nightwatch jolts the reader with domestic front reality and all that women did while men—most of them—were fighting. Waters is known as a lesbian writer, but this does her a great disservice (shame on me for letting the label slip out again). She ranks among the greatest of stylists, and her use of historical detail is beautiful.

No Angel by Penny Vincenzi. This is the first in a trilogy about the Lytton family. I first heard this author mentioned in this article, which offers some other authors and titles, too. It looks like a fun, engaging series, though I haven’t read them yet. The first one can be hard to come by, but you can always try the Book Depository, which offers free shipping on books still in print in Britain. (Nasty exchange rate, of course, but anything for a good book, right?)

Now You See Him by Eli Gottleib. From Publisher’s Weekly: “A mesmerizing blend of suspense and long-buried family secrets, Gottlieb's second novel (after 1997's The Boy Who Went Away) culminates in shocking revelations that rock a quiet upstate New York town. Nick Framingham is still reeling from the recent death of his childhood best friend, the writer Rob Castor, who committed suicide after killing his ex-girlfriend in Manhattan. Nick's own marriage to his college sweetheart, Lucy, begins to unravel as he struggles to understand what drove Rob to murder. Rekindling an old relationship with his first love, Belinda, Rob's volatile and beautiful sister, Nick begins to retrace not only Rob's last days but also their shared childhood, looking for clues to explain his friend's actions.”

The Other Side of You by Salley Vickers “This definitely goes into the ‘Books That Changed My Life’ column. I first heard of it from the Post’s Michael Dirda—always a trusted source!--though what I came away with exceeded his praise. Vickers is British, with a background in literature and psychotherapy. In this story, she examines a patient/therapist relationship, how their sharing changes each, while tying in Caravaggio’s life, as well as scripture—an unlikely addition to this most secular world—with thought-provoking and heartbreaking results. I adored this book, have the marked up hardcover to prove it, and did a fair amount of weeping. Yes, too heavy for the beach...”

Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson. “Sparse and powerful.”

The Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason. A historic fiction about a British Army officer living in Burma who sends for a Piano Tuner from London. Story revolves around the officer, the Shan rebellion, life in a British Colony and independence while the officer searches for love

Portrait of an Unknown Woman by Vanora Bennett. “I am into historical fictions so skip this if you are not, but it is about Sir Thomas Moore and his family and it is very engaging. Decidedly low-brow.”

Run by Ann Patchett. “It's a story about family -- who's in a family? Why? What are the boundaries and edges of what makes up a family? Stunning.”

Secret History of the Pink Carnation by Lauren Willig. TOTAL trash and kind of silly, but still fun. It’s billed as historical fiction, but I think it would be better categorized as historical romance/farcical caper. The back of the book says it’s a “genre bender,” and I think it is, but maybe not in the way the author intended. There’s probably more wrong history than right in it, with all kinds of anachronistic slang, etc. But I flew right through it and enjoyed it with only slight shame for having done so. It’s one a few similar books by this author.

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka. From New Yorker: “In this comic first novel, two estranged sisters living in England discover that their addled elderly father, a Ukrainian war refugee and expert on tractors, is planning to marry a young, enormous-breasted woman who sees his modest pension as her ticket to capitalist comfort. The sisters put aside their differences, and embark on a spirited campaign to save him from boil-in-the-bag dinners, slovenly housekeeping, and such extravagant purchases as a broken-down Rolls-Royce. In the midst of these machinations—which include long-winded letters to solicitors, venomous gossip, and all-out spying—Lewycka stealthily reveals how the depredations of the past century dictate what a family can bear.”

Snow Flower & The Secret Fan by Lisa See. “China. 19thc. Friendship. Historical novel with a bit of suspense. Engrossing read.”

Songs without Words by Ann Packer. “Follow-up novel by the author of Dive from Clausen's Pier (which I loved). Have not read this but loved her first book.” {not out yet, but available for pre-order.}

Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri. This got a couple of votes: “Almost as good as her first book of short stories.” “(short stories this time, subtle prose masks rich, intricate family relations)”

The View from Castle Rock by Alice Munro. For those of you who like Geraldine Brooks, you can see what she has to say on Munro in the Amazon link. Nobody’s shelf is complete without Alice Munro, and this title is her latest, though any one of her books will satisfy. She writes long, novel-like stories, life stories that leave you enlightened and entertained and in awe of the everyday folk of rural Canada. She’s in some ways reminiscent of our early to mid-century Southern writers, but she digs deeper, shows us the startling and disturbing secrets of everyone around us. The first piece in The View from Castle Rock will win over only the most persistent as she lays out much of her complex family history, but the rest are vintage Munro.

The Wedding Officer by Anthony Capella “ Total Junk Read - Reading anything by Capella will make you very hungry and leave you with a strong desire to move to Italy (I also recommend his first novel, The Food of Love). The story takes place in Italy in WWII, and based on a tiny bit of truth. But mostly it's a love story with a focus on food and cooking. A wee bit smutty as well (Amazon describes it as ‘sensuous’).”

World Without End by Ken Follett. The sequel to the Pillars of the Earth.

The 2008 List: Fiction Old Favorites

Auntie Mame by Patrick Dennis. “An old classic. Extraordinarily witty and well-written, it's akin to P.G. Wodehouse - i.e., absurd story lines mixed with clever social critiques. A light-hearted but nonetheless rich and rewarding read.”

Dancing at the Rascal Fair by Ivan Doig. “an older book but a newly discovered author for me…beautiful writer… I want to read more of his books.”

Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife: Pride & Prejudice Continues by Linda Berdoll. This was on last year’s list, and I read it over the winter. Oh my gosh, it is trash! But it’s fun, especially if you loved Pride & Prejudice and like to imagine what became of Elizabeth and Darcy after they got married. You have to overlook the author’s attempt, lame at times, to use the language of the times. (Someone must tell her how to use the word “betwixt,” because she DOES NOT KNOW). If you like this sort of book (continuations of, or different perspectives of, Jane Austen novels) there are others in the genre. The Pamela Aiden trilogy, which begins with An Assembly Such as This tells the P&P story from Darcy’s perspective. You really and truly can skip the second book in that series.

Disgrace by J.M. Coatzee. “Though not very long and quite an easy read, this book amazed me with all it accomplishes. Coatzee does gender and race in South Africa without ever mentioning the words, hardly hinting that he’s talking politics at all. In fact, the title could be ‘Desire,’ for all its focus on what the heart wants. I’ve wanted to read Coatzee since he won the Nobel in 2003, and I wasn’t disappointed. Yes, the book’s subjects involve the political, but what he’s really written is a suspenseful—This can’t be happening but it is!-- near-Biblical tale on the meaning of love—and parenting.”

The Distant Land of My Father by Bo Caldwell. “…Really great history of Shanghai and redemptive father-daughter story.”

The Eight by Katherine Neville. Written in 1997, “an intense thriller that is steeped in history. The story revolves around a chess set with magical powers that is sought after across the ages. Highly complex and quick-pace at the same time.”

Eleanor of Aquitaine by Alison Weir. “France, England. Good old raucous Royals.
Ok, I love good romps of royals in historical fiction and normally love Alison Weir's books. This one didn't do it for me (too dry), but big Alison Weir fans may really love it. It got very good reviews.” (This reader preferred
The Children of Henry VIII by Weir, saying it was “wildly more interesting and entertaining.”)

English Passengers by Matthew Kneale. I haven’t read this yet, but I have it on deck on the strength of reviews I read on Goodreads (great social networking for readers with more than a million users. You all must join, and when you do, you can “friend” me. Aren’t I the early adapter!) Here’s one review: “the book is about a self satisfied minister who decides to voyage to Tasmania where he is certain he will find the Garden of Eden. Travelling on a Manx ship captained by an endearing pirate, and accompanied by a hilariously racist doctor, this character provides quite enough entertainment. However, there is much more in the book. At the same time, Kneale chronicles the eradication of the indigenous people of Tasmania, in a manner which is alternately heartbreaking and funny. There's something for everyone in this book.”

Flashman by George Macdonald Fraser (and others in the Flashman series). These are guy books. Drew has really enjoyed them. They are “satirical histiography” about this a rascal -- Harry Flashman – who finds himself amid great events of the 19th century, while being chased by jealous husbands and getting (and accepting) credit for courage that he didn’t actually possess.

Gaudy Night (and other “Lord Peter Wimsey” mysteries) by Dorothy Sayers. I’m getting into it, heeding all the Amazon reviewers’ warnings that it starts slow but gets great. But I hope to like it, as there are others in this series. Briefly, the protagonist returns to her alma mater, the fictional women’s “Shrewsbury College” at Oxford – to get to the bottom of some crimes being committed there. Written in 1936, it offers, in addition to a psychological thriller, an interesting view of a women’s college in the interwar period.

The Good Life by Jay McInerney, author of Bright Lights Big City. “Not one likable character in the lot, really, but for some reason I couldn’t put it down. Voyeurism, really.

An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears. “If one gets into historical mysteries, this is an all-time winner.”

Lying Awake by Mark Salzman. “I’m just about to order this book. I was told by a friend that it is very interesting.” From an Amazon reviewer: “Sister John of the Cross is a Carmelite nun, part of a cloistered group in Los Angeles California. She is faced with worsening headaches that allow her to have visions or insights, leading her into a state of ecstasy and an extended understanding of the meaning of Christ in her life. When a pathological reason for the headaches is found she is faced with the possibility that her visions are part of the manifestations of the condition and not real.”

My Dream of You by Nuala O'Faolain. “This book intertwines the stories of two women, an Irish travel writer living in present-day London, and a British landowner's wife during the 19th century potato famine, who was convicted of committing adultery with an Irish groom. This book has gotten lots of great reviews. Including: ‘A lovely heartbreaker of a novel that asks the hard questions...O'Faolain writes beautifully about longing and regret. (USA Today).”

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. “Barcelona. 1950's but harks back. Secrets. Intrigue. Much more intense than the other recommendations, also longer. Just 1/3 way through, but it's terrific so far (and has gotten rave reviews).” I read this and loved it last year.

Sophie's Choice by William Styron. “I read this for the first time a few months ago. I loved it. William Styron was such beautiful writer. I went out and bought all his other books which I hope to read soon.”

The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard. “You may have read Hazzard’s The Great Fire a few years back, but this 1980 book is even better, richer, more ambitious. It’s the story of two orphaned sisters that spans more than next forty years. Like The Great Fire, it’s a love story at its heart. Read the last chapters carefully to discover how perfectly and intricately plotted the story is. Hazzard’s writing is painterly, incandescent, and her wisdom and knowledge light up every page.”

The Unlikely Spy and other titles by Dan Silva. “These are great beach reads if you like fast-paced, historical mysteries. My husband and I both read them – but honestly we’ve read them a few times and are always surprised (again) by the ending. They don’t stick, but they are good.”

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte. “You have to read it as an adult. It’s about the passions of a dysfunctional family and the happy resolution of its misery.”

The 2008 List: Non-Fiction (New and Old)

The 10-Year Nap by Meg Wolitzer…..a light read about stay at home mom but written with very erudite voice – I seem to remember it had favorable NYTimes review couple wks ago. Highly recommend!

"90 Minutes in Heaven by Don Piper. “This is the story of a man who has a car accident and reports his vision of Heaven, and his long recovery following the accident.”

Are you Somebody? By Nuala O'Faolain. [From Googlebooks]: “The author attracted a huge amount of critical praise and a wide audience with the literary debut of Are You Somebody? Her midlife exploration of life's love, pain, loneliness, and self- discovery won her fans worldwide who write and tell her how her story has changed their lives. There are thousands who have yet to discover this extraordinary memoir of an Irish woman who has stepped away from the traditional roles to define herself and find contentment. They will make this paperback a long-selling classic.” A novel by O’Faolain, My Dream of You, is reviewed above.

Audition by Barbara Walters. “I know you’ll puke, Virginia, but I’m really enjoying the Barbara Walters autobiography!! Not at all the book I was expecting – a LOT about her pre-fame days, dealing with very unusual childhood experiences. “ [for the record, I did not puke.]

The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science (James H. Silberman Books) by Norman Doidge. “For anyone who has a child who learns differently, or for anyone who learns differently, or anyone who is interested in how the brain functions. Doidge makes detailed scientific information accessible and fascinating.”

Broken For You by Stephanie Kallos. “It's about making something new out of that which is or has been broken -- people, place and things. Works on a number of different levels and is really, really compelling.”

But How'd I Get in There in the First Place? Talking to Your Child About Sex - by Deborah Roffman. “If it's time for "that" conversation - this is the book you need to read first!”

Change the Way you See Yourself through Asset Based Thinking by Kathryn Cramer. A book about connecting with your true leadership potential. A book that is 50 percent pictures and sure to make you think.

Gusher of Lies: The Dangerous Delusion of Energy Independence by Robert Bryce. “This book is a counterweight to other energy books and articles that have been in the news recently. Unlike authors who tout renewable energy as the answer to all America’s energy problems, Robert Bryce sets out to debunk a series of what he describes as myths that Americans believe about energy.” [For the record, the provocative title notwithstanding, Bryce, an energy journalist, is not an ideologue.]

The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch. “A book by the carnegie mellon professor with terminal pancreatic cancer who put his thoughts on life together into a lecture and then this book to leave to his young children.”

Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of Seal Team 10 by Marcus Luttrell. I know a lot of people who were amazed by this book. I gather they are making a movie out of it.

The Long Road Home: A Story of War and Family by Martha Raddatz. Written by the chief White House correspondent for ABC News chronicles the story of a platoon of 1st Cavalry Division soldiers who were pinned down by al-Sadr's Shiite militia in Iraq.

Lose Weight, Find Love, Declutter and Save Money by Michele Woodward. This is a first… a book by one of this book list’s annual contributors. This book is fun and insightful. It’s a collection of essays, so it lends itself to beach reading. Once you read and enjoy it, I’m sure Michelle would appreciate your adding a review to the Amazon site.

Louder Than Words: A Mother's Journey in Healing Autism by Jenny McCarthy. “If you have a special needs child--with or without autism---this book will inspire you to be an even stronger advocate for your child. If you don't have a special needs child, you will still appreciate her tenacity and strength as a woman and a mother. I could not put this book down. I was dumbfounded about how her child's diagnosis was botched for some time, and my heart broke and rejoiced throughout the journey to the end of this book.”

Loving What Is by Byron Katie and Stephen Mitchell. “Oprah's next project, with an online class, etc. Katie's approach, called The Work, is an excellent way to examine your limiting beliefs and get rid of the ideas that hold you back from happiness and success. Great.”

Lucky: A Memoir by Alice Sebold. From Library Journal: “Sebold was raped as a college freshman, but the police said she was "lucky." At least she wasn't murdered and dismembered like the girl before her. Now a journalist, Sebold here details the aftermath. A posttraumatic stress syndrome, heroin addiction, and, finally, some measure of understanding.”

The Man in the Sharkskin Suit: My Family's Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World, by Lucette Lagnado “is the story told through a current contributor to the Wall Street Journal, of her parents transition from Egypt to the United States after the rise of Nasser and creation of Israel. Many people forget that 1,000,000 Jews in the Middle East were displaced when Israel was created, the story tells the tale of her family going from a comfortable wealthy existence in Cairo to struggling in America.”

The Man Who Loved China by Simon Winchester. “I love everything he writes.”

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. Frankl endured four different Nazi death camps, including Auschwitz during WWII. From Amazon: “Frankl argues that we cannot avoid suffering but we can choose how to cope with it, find meaning in it, and move forward with renewed purpose. Frankl's theory—known as logotherapy, from the Greek word logos (‘meaning’)—holds that our primary drive in life is not pleasure, as Freud maintained, but the discovery and pursuit of what we personally find meaningful.”

The Merry Recluse: A Life in Essays by Caroline Knapp. A posthumous collection of Knapp’s essays. “I didn’t see her on your list….she’s up there with Anne Lamott for me.”

The Middle Place by Kelly Corrigan. “Awesome book, quick read and she’s very funny. Could be any one of us.”

Miracle in the Andes: 72 Days on the Mountain and My Long Trek Home by Nando Parrado. “an UNBELIEVABLE book.”

A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle. One reader says she hates to admit that she loves this book by Tolle, one of Oprah’s pals, but “then you can download for free their weekly discussion which I listen to on my Ipod while walking.”

Plow, Plagues and Petroleum by William F. Ruddiman. “Did human involvement with climate change really begin with the Industrial Revolution? This book traces the full history of human interaction with the climate of Earth. He critiques the global warming debate (from both sides) in his conclusion.”

The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry: Love, Laughter, and Tears at the World's Most Famous Cooking School - by Kathleen Flinn. “This is a fun account of the author's years at Cordon Bleu, which she attended almost on a whim after getting fired from an executive position. I laughed throughout, and it cured me of any desire to ever attend cooking school.”

Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea by Gary Kinder. “A true story of recovering a ship that reads like a thriller (honestly, I wouldn’t have believed it myself if I hadn’t seen my sister in its grips on the beach!)”

Steering By Starlight “My friend Martha Beck's new book. It's the follow-on to her bestseller Finding Your Own North Star and is great for people who are willing to think about spirituality, intuition and stripping away the layers of thoughts, beliefs and ideas that limit us from our potential. Funny, well-written and moving. Martha also wrote a lovely book about her Down Syndrome son, called Expecting Adam.”

Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters by Meg Meeker. [This one is for dads.] “My husband has been raving about this book so thought I'd pass the title along. He says it is the best book he has read about parenting girls.”

Sweet and Low by Rich Cohen. “Hilarious! A true story about a Seinfeld/Curb Your Enthusiasm-type family, who actually created the ‘Sweet & Low’ pink sugar brand, and all the antics of their relatives in Brooklyn. (Husband couldn’t stop laughing out loud when he read it).”

UltraPrevention by Drs. Hyman and Liponis. “Their mantra is health is not just being disease free.’ How to de-tox and be healthy for the long-term. Making your health span the same as your life span.”

When a Crocodile Eats the Sun by Peter Goodwin, a white Zimbabwean who tells the tale of the failure of the country though his dying father and mother who will not leave. There is also a personal twist as to why his father left Britain for Zimbabwe in the first place and the family history. The author never knew that his father escaped the Holocaust by coming to Zimbabwe, making the whole thing even more granular and showing the vulnerability of not only a white person in Zimbabwe but the secrets his father kept. Really good story of how Zimbabwe went from promise to desperation.

When You are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris. “It is his first real autobiography and I’m sure will be hilarious (I’ve read all his other books & if you like his twisted but honest sense of humor, you’ll be addicted to him!)”

Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang. “One of my all-time favorites. A non-fiction book about 3 generations of women in China.”

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. “I've read this three times. For anyone who ever lost a loved one, it’s comforting. I was scared to read it because I thought I'd be immersed in her grief and it would heighten mine. To the contrary, the mind set (a month ago, I was doing _____w my mom. Two months ago, she was _______) is like an old friend. It is incredibly educational in terms of the physical and psychological components of grief but it reads like you are having a latte w a friend.”

The Zookeeper's Wife: A War Story by Diane Ackerman. “Beautifully written prose, and an amazing story of courage, heroism and life in the face of death. No matter how many accounts of WWII and the Holocaust you've read, it will blow you away with the lengths some people went to to save others, and the absolute brutality of the Nazi regime. If you read only one book, this should be it; I could not put it down.”

The 2008 List: The Stuck in 19th Century Britain Collection

Since I’m still in this rut of reading 19th century female authors, almost to the exclusion of everything else, I figured I’d share some suggestions, but without cluttering up the rest of the list.

Belinda by Maria Edgeworth. Edgeworth is known as the “Irish Jane Austen,” and some consider her works comparable to Austen. Not quite true. But this was a nice, entertaining read if you like the genre.

The Grand Sophy (and dozens of other titles) by Georgette Heyer. It’s embarrassing to admit how much I have LOVED these books, but in my defense, Heyer has been sanctioned by both Michael Dirda of the Washington Post and A.S. Bayatt. Put it this way: If you like Jane Austen and other 19th century romantic literature, try Heyer. They are not as rich, but they are fun. Her writing is consistently good – she almost never “phoned it in.” She wrote in the 20th century, but mainly about the 19th. The stories are formulaic but clean and humorous and known for their accurate historical tidbits. (She was a historian). I’m into happy endings in 2008, and Heyer’s books deliver.

Miss Marjoribanks by Margaret Oliphant. The protagonist’s character is amusing -- her only expressed desire upon coming home from school and her grand European tour is to be "a comfort to her dear Papa." With a strategic sense that rivals great generals, she sets about taking over the society of her little town. It’s a lot of fun if you like 19th century provincial "small ball."

Middlemarch by George Eliot. I finally read this book over the winter. I am not sure it’s a beach book – it might be winter reading – but it’s an absolute masterpiece. And there’s a BBC miniseries!

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell. Not to be confused with North and South by John Jakes. This is the British North and South, about changes in Britain during the industrializing England of the mid-19th century. It’s a love story, a family story, a social commentary. And if you like it, there is a fantastic miniseries. (No really… I mean FANTASTIC miniseries.)

What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew: From Fox Hunting to Whist-The Facts of Daily Life in Nineteenth-Century England by Daniel Pool. Fun facts about life in 19th century England.

Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell. This is a great book, but it’s unfinished (she died while writing it). I tell you that, because the Wiki entry says “it was not quite complete, and the last section was written by Frederick Greenwood.” That makes it sound like he FINISHED IT. But he just adds something on about how he thinks she might have ended the book. I mean, it practically ends in the middle of a sentence. But it’s STILL good, and (once again) there is a terrific BBC miniseries with a wonderful (made-up) ending. The book’s about a girl whose father remarries rather hastily. She gains a difficult step-mother and step-sister in the process, and the book chronicles their relationships.