Thanks to an utterly amazing response by our contributors (who seem to have carved out a good deal of reading time over the past year) we have a very robust list. It's divided into four sections. You can navigate to them through all the intuitive ways on this page, or simply click on these links:
• Top Picks
• Newer Fiction
• Older Fiction/Favorites from Previous Lists
If you think of it, please try to order books through this website. As an Amazon Associate, every purchase made by clicking from our site supports our effort. (You can order any format - Kindle, etc.) And don't forget our older lists, which you can reach through the archives on the left. We've been at this since 2005. The 2007 post has three years inside it! Thanks again, so much, to everyone who contributed such great ideas and such thoughtful reviews.
Saturday, May 28, 2011
Thanks to an utterly amazing response by our contributors (who seem to have carved out a good deal of reading time over the past year) we have a very robust list. It's divided into four sections. You can navigate to them through all the intuitive ways on this page, or simply click on these links:
Friday, May 27, 2011
Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff Biography. “Not one I would have picked up but given to me by a friend. I devoured it in a few days." … “Great read, great history as biography.” … “Read this on your Kindle or with dictionary at your side. A light rompy read, this is not... however, it is a very interesting and well researched story about the mesmerizing Cleopatra.”
Crazy U: One Dad's Crash Course in Getting His Kid Into College by Andrew Ferguson. Non-fiction. “Ferguson's book about college admissions makes you scream, ‘WHAT are we DOING?’ The book’s narrative focus -- Ferguson’s son’s journey through college admissions – stands alone in depicting the utter madness that defines the process of trying to get a kid into college (and then, somehow, paying for it). But Ferguson reinforces the sense of lunacy with interesting history and analysis. And Ferguson is SO funny. To wit, Ferguson, having been told his son should ‘dig deep’ and talk about his ‘innermost thoughts’ when writing his essay, Ferguson observes ‘seventeen-year-old boys do not have innermost thoughts – and if they did, neither you nor I would want to know what they are.’)” As the Washington Post put it, ‘It may seem strange to say that a book so full of heartache is a pleasure to read, but Ferguson's storytelling is irresistible. ’ Ferguson only begins to touch on the question that is probably at the heart of the higher ed bubble - is a Bachelor's degree truly worth a quarter million dollars and an unspeakable hassle? - but he does get you thinking.”
Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin. Murder mystery/thriller. Black Silas Jones and white Larry Ott were childhood friends, though they kept their friendship quiet in 1970s Mississippi. A girl disappears after a date with Larry, who is universally suspected (though not convicted) of the crime. Flash forward to present times. Silas is now the constable and another girl disappears. Larry, an outcast all these years, is again a suspect. The story of their old friendship and mysteries – old and new – unfold. Contributor comments: “Compelling with great southern Mississippi atmospherics. Larry Ott is a truly pathetic character (in the real meaning of the word) -- heartbreakingly so. I read the book in a couple of days.” … “A reasonably simple story of murder and friendship set in Mississippi, beautifully told, with real character development even for the supporting roles, and a few twists - no huge surprises, but nicely woven together.”
One Day by David Nicholls. This novel, published in 2009, has gone a little viral, perhaps because of the impending movie adaptation. Contributor comments: “It should be called ‘One Date,’ as it's about a whole bunch of July 15ths, over a period of 20 years in the lives of Dexter and Emma. I liked peeking into the window their lives, one day (date) at a time, and felt the novel worked well structurally. I had a rooting interest in the outcome, and appreciated their witty exchanges.” … “Great read, well written, good characters.” … “Picking up this book was like reliving 20 years of time with two best friends I didn't even knew I had! Dexter and Emma meet at Edinburgh University on July 15 1988 and every chapter is a glimpse into their lives on July 15 for the next 20 years.” ... "This would be a fantastic book to read on the beach. So engaging, you love the characters, well-written but v accessible."
The Paris Wife by Paula McClain. I think I might be the only one who has not yet read (and loved) this novel, so this may be a review in service of just me. In fact, it got so many recommendations that I had to winnow down the comments (which I did at random): "A simple, but nicely told story of Hemingway and his first wife during their time in Paris. The story comes across very real the entire time, you feel for Hadley, know that it all will not end well - and so does she pretty much, but totally understand her choices and her acceptance of the consequences. The writing is kind of lyrical.” …. “Interesting from two perspectives: historical and a love story. Liked because Hemingway is such a fascinating person. His huge self-confidence and adventure seeking persona are intriguing.” … “You'll want to reread Moveable Feast when you finish.”
Room by Emma Donohue. Novel. “A riveting story, told entirely from the perspective of a five-year-old, which you would think would get tiresome but somehow doesn’t. It becomes clear quite early in the novel that the whole of the young narrator’s life has been spent in one room, though due to the absolutely heroic efforts of his mother to protect him, he doesn’t know what he is missing. Through the child’s eyes, the circumstances that led to their living in ‘The Room’ unfold, and events ensue.” … “Overall, do not be put off by the subject matter - the strength of the first half of this book makes it worth reading." Several of you commented on the relative weakness of the second half of the book, but all agreed that it's a page-turner.
The Story of Beautiful Girl by Rachel Simon. Several of you mentioned this new release. From Amazon: “It is 1968. Lynnie, a young white woman with a developmental disability, and Homan, an African American deaf man, are locked away in an institution, the School for the Incurable and Feebleminded, and have been left to languish, forgotten. Deeply in love, they escape, and find refuge in the farmhouse of Martha, a retired schoolteacher and widow. But the couple is not alone-Lynnie has just given birth to a baby girl.” Reviewers have used words like "enthralling" and "captivating."
Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand. By the author of Seabiscuit: An American Legend, this is a biography of Louie Zamperini, an Olympic runner who wound up an Air Force Lieutenant and prisoner of war in WWII. By all accounts I’ve seen, Unbroken reads like fiction – a “breathless” narrative style, in the words of the New York Times. Contributor comments: “I am not usually a nonfiction fan but this story is too amazing not to read. Laura Hillenbrand's story is pretty interesting as well. She lives DC and suffers from chronic fatigue syndrome.” … “Definitely not my usual pick but impossible to put down.”
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. Each chapter in this novel, which won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, is told from a different character’s point of view –friends and associates of a music producer/former punk rocker. Contributor comments: “Smart, modern, and well-written book dealing with the aging of a generation of hip youngsters.” … “This is a fun but thoughtful book about...well...about a whole bunch of people who all have some connection to each other, some more than others, all dealing with different stages of life, and we meet several of them over again as they age or in their past. Confused? You won't be. I never felt out of place or out of time in this book. Egan does a great job of quickly establishing where you are at and with which character and then you fall completely into their story.”
22 Britannia Road by Amanda Hodgkinson. “The story of Polish emigres to England who are separated during the WW2 and reunite afterwards with their young son. Engaging and readable - there are surprises and it keeps you guessing until the end.”
Angelology by Danielle Trussoni. “A mix of fiction and biblical mythology, the book focuses on the Nephilim, human/angel hybrids created when god first created Earth and sent angelic Watchers to oversee humanity. The hybrids, beautiful, cruel creatures who live among humans, are dying of an unknown disease and attempting to discover the cure hidden in a convent. In turn, the convent houses a few nuns/angelologists who attempt to destroy the Nephilim before they ruin humanity. The book is reminiscent of a Dan Brown novel, however it feels like Trussoni got tired of writing by the end.”
The Astronomer: A Novel of Suspense by Lawrence Goldstone. “I was not sure what I was about to read – one of those books that was on the table and my husband said it was good. It’s a historical murder mystery based in the 1500’s in France during the Inquisition when the catholic church was suspicious of anyone who challenged the church. Luther had already begun to have followers and the 'free-thinkers' and scientists were forced under-ground. The main character, the illegitimate son of a nobleman, is sent to a monastery but is recruited by the Inquisition to seek-out those who are going against the church. He himself is fascinated my science and faces moral dilemmas. Religion, science and murder … it was well written, had lots of mini-plots happening and I look forward to reading more books by this author! (I don’t want to give too much away at the end … I really enjoyed not knowing what I was about to read – made it all the more thrilling!)"
An Atlas of Impossible Longing by Anuradha Roy . “It's a family saga set in India in the early part of the last century. Men, women, love, lust, struggle, families, the meaning of work... all tackled with a mystical slant. Like very much.”
Belong to Me by Marisa de los Santos, the author of Love Walked In,which was reviewed last year. "This next novel was just as readable and engaging. One review called it 'gracefully written,' and I have to agree. De los Santos was a poet prior to being a novelist, and it shows. Belong to Me is the continuation of the story of Cornelia and her now husband Teo. Both books together would take one happily through several days on the beach. Calling it chick-lit might be a turn-off, though I candidly admit that I struggle to imagine a man reading either of these novels."
Between Here and April by Deborah Copaken Cogan. "Photojournalist Elizabeth Burns passes out while attending a production of Medea with her husband. The play caused a painful childhood episode to resurface in her mind – the disappearance of her best friend, April Cassidy, at the age of 6. What happened had always been a mystery, and Elizabeth is compelled to investigate."
Burnt Mountain by Anne Rivers Siddons [Ed note: This, and several other reviews sprinkled throughout this year's list are a friend in the publishing industry. She (best job ever) gets to read everything before the rest of us and selected the best summer releases. This one will be out 7/19/2011) "From one of our most acclaimed writers comes this dramatic tale of a well-born Southern woman whose life is forever changed by the betrayal of her mother and by the man she loves Growing up, the only place tomboy Thayer Wentworth felt at home was at her summer camp - Camp Sherwood Forest in the North Carolina Mountains. It was there that she came alive and where she met Nick Abrams, her first love...and first heartbreak." (Ed again: Love Siddons on the beach - especially if I'm on a southern beach.)
Summer and the City: A Carrie Diaries Novel by Candace Bushnell. "For those of us still mourning the termination of Sex and the City, these two prequels help satiate the grieving process. They are light and perfect for the beach. It is like an archeological dig into Carrie's life pre Sex in the City."
The City & The City by China Mieville. "I like my science fiction 'light.' I'm generally not interested in aliens, space exploration, crazy futuristic technology (dinner in the shape of a pill - no thanks!) Although I can cite books that I've loved with these elements, I just don't gravitate to them naturally. The City & The City has just the right mix for me, taking a traditional crime novel plot and executing it in a fantasy setting. Plot-wise the story is fairly standard - a young woman is found murdered and our hero, Tyador Borlu of the Extreme Crime Squad, is assigned to the case. The complexity of the setting is what makes this book so engrossing."
Clara and Mr. Tiffany by Susan Vreeland. From a published review: "(Luncheon of the Boating Party) continues her art-history inspired novels by focusing on Clara Driscoll, the director of one branch of Louis Comfort Tiffany’s glass studio. Letters of hers found recently indicate that she, not Tiffany, was the brainchild behind the famous Tiffany glass lamps. To protect this glass studio from union strikes, Tiffany hired only unmarried women and gave Clara management and artisitic freedom to run the studio. The book is an interesting look at how hard Clara Driscoll fought for the women in her employ and the private sacrifices Clara made in order to continue in her art."
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. “Matryoshka dolls with one inside the other and then pulling back out to our original story. Mitchell is such a fantastic writer. As I would start each story I was thinking ‘damn, I was really getting into that other story - I don't care about a spoiled music student/reporter/old age home captive/futuristic clone/apocalyptic hillbilly’ but then I found myself caring very much about each of these new stories to the point where I was so frustrated when they would abruptly change to the next. Each story takes on a new voice and a new technique (journal, letters, interview, 3rd person and 1st) that give each a completely different feel and perspective from the previous story.”
Comfort & Joy by Kristin Hannah. “I found this book listed in a Guardian article where authors talked about their favorite books of the year. I forget now which author listed this book but since they also listed One Dayby David Nichols (which I loved) I thought I would pick this one up. As soon as I started it I groaned. Chick Lit! A middle aged woman is whinging about her looks, her family, the crush of the Christmas season...so she ducks into a hotel bar for a drink and meets a man. Could this possibly be on anyone's favorite book list? Although I had to admit that there were some funny lines so I decided to keep going. I'm glad I did. By the middle of the book I'm laughing and reading passages out loud to my husband (who says he will not read it himself because he doesn't like to read this kind of low brow humor although he was also laughing at what I read).”
The Confession by John Grisham. “I hadn’t read a Grisham book since his first few, but the Washington Post surprised me by giving the Confession a good review. Plus I had occasion to be exposed to the particulars of the ‘Norfolk Four’ case and how coerced confessions of the sort depicted in this novel can so thoroughly corrupt justice. The book was very suspenseful with a fairly well crafted story, and I finished it in a day. It was also better written than I remember Grisham being (should I read something he's written in the past fifteen years?). The negative was that I felt clubbed over the head with his caricatures. The novel is “advocacy fiction” (I think I’m making up that phrase, but you know what I mean) -- everyone is either angel or devil, depending on which side they are on. The innocent are perfect and pure and the pro-capital punishment characters are either: 1) corrupt and evil (anyone in an official role) or 2) ignorant, vengeful Texas rubes (all the rest). Shades of gray might have helped him Grisham deliver his message more effectively. I kept thinking of Tom Wolfe's book, I am Charlotte Simmons, where characters were so gratuitously cruel as to lack credibility. But again ... I read it in a day, so it obviously made a perfect beach read.”
Eighteen Acres by Nicolle Wallace, former White House Communications Director. “A great ‘beach’ read. Nicolle did a great job, I thought. Couldn't put it down. Although, fiction, It's full of insider info on the workings of the White House from someone who's been there!”
Everything Changes by Jonathan Tropper. “Man's best friend dies in car crash. Guy cheats on fiancee with best friend's widow. Guy pees blood. But don't let these three descriptors drive you away from this book. Tropper is a gifted storyteller, and this is an awesome book.” [Ed: Tropper's How to Talk to a Widower is reviewed below, and This Is Where I Leave You was a top pick last year. I know it seems like this blog is turning a little "cult of Tropper," but he's REALLY good.]
Family Album by Penelope Lively “About a family with 6 kids and all the dysfunction of growing up in a large family...a few plot twists that will remind you of the Schwarznegger love triangle.”
Fly Away Home by Jennifer Weiner “While I think Jennifer Weiner is a formulaic writer whose book endings are sooooo predictable, they still make for a great beach read. Family drama. Affairs. Rehab. Intricate relationships. And, an ending that might make you say 'oh, BARF' -- but it's still a good read, I promise.”
The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton “A woman discovers that her past may not be precisely what she thought it was. She travels from Australia to England to discover who she truly is (and to fall in love with a hunky gardener).”
Freedom by Jonathan Franzan – “SO good! Characters are so good, normal flawed people making mistakes, giving into temptations they should not; long book but worth it… “ … “This work of fiction from the author of the bestseller The Corrections offers a bittersweet 'commentary' highlighting the contradiction between the ideals and realities of ‘freedom.’ It follows a family in the 2000's as each member wrestles with the decisions they make for themselves in order to 'be free'. Sometimes freedom looks more like 'escape from' rather than a 'pursuit of'. It's long, but hard to put down. Sometimes shockingly explicit, it attempts to put reality into a stark focus, with all of the raw elements that challenge idealism. Perfect for long summer afternoons on the beach.”
The Girl with Glass Feet by Ali Shaw. “An adventuresome girl returns to a cold island that she once vacationed on to try to find a cure for her feet, which are turning into glass. While there, she falls in love with an odd local man who helps her find other native islanders who might have the power to save her. There is a mystical, sad feel to the characters and the book; one review calls it ‘dreamlike’ - a perfect description.”
Great House by Nicolas Krauss. A new novel by the author of History of Love, which was a top pick a couple of years ago. “Several stories entwined about different characters lives that does not wrap up neatly at the end.”
Groundswell by Katie Lee (Another pick from my publishing insider, coming 6/21/2011) “About the Book: EAT, SURF, LOVE. A butterfly flaps its wings in New York City . . . and a groundswell forms in Mexico. . . . Sometimes the biggest ripples come from the smallest events. Like the day that Emma Guthrie walks into world-famous movie star Garrett Walker’s trailer. When she steps through the door, she’s a novice PA who’s just dropped out of college after losing her scholarship. When she walks out, she’s on her way to becoming Mrs. Emma Walker—wife of an A-list actor. Soon, Emma has made the transition from nobody to redcarpet royalty, trading jeans and flip-flops for closets full of Chanel and Birkin bags, swishing past velvet ropes to attend every lavish party and charity gala on both coasts.”
Hazardby Gardiner Harris. “A fascinating glimpse into the day to day lives of Appalachian coal miners. Gardiner is a New York times journalist who lived in Kentucky for a while and with this novel really brings the dangerous world of coal mining to life. It is a gripping murder mystery and particularly fascinating to read as we remember some of the real life coal mining accidents that have happened recently. A real page turner.”
The House at Riverton by Kate Morton “A filmmaker explores a dramatic murder at a vast English estate which took place 70 years ago. What new details will emerge? Who was sleeping with whom? Why did the family fall apart shortly after the murder? Who's the starlet and what's her story? [guilty pleasure book]” … “The House at Riverton and The Forbidden Garden both by Kate Morton (an Australian author) are turn of the century sagas, drama, romance, mystery, that kind of thing. It was a pleasant change after going through the 3 Stieg Larsson novels!”
How to Talk to a Widower by Jonathan Tropper. [Ed: Tropper’s This Is Where I Leave You was a top pick last year, and Everything Changes is reviewed above]. "One reviewer on Goodreads referred to Tropper’s genre as ‘lad lit.’ Probably apt – he writes about male characters in dramatic situations with a little romance thrown in. Tropper is vulgar and hilarious, and his books (as near as I can tell from actually reading two of them and reading about a few others) tend to climax in these completely absurd scenes – kind of like Pat Conroy (escaped tiger anyone?) but funny, not Gothic. This one is about a young widower who suffers (and becomes insufferable) in the period after his wife’s death. And, vintage Tropper, his family is an absolute parade of neuroses.”
The Hundred-Foot Journey by Richard Morais. From Amazon: “Grandson of an entrepreneurial lunchbox deliveryman, Chef Hassan Haji tells of his rise to culinary success in Paris via Bombay, London, and a small town in the French Alps. With a fond, over-the-shoulder regard, he presents the lively family members, friends, and former foes who shaped him as a young chef, leading him to face his destiny and realize that cooking is not only in his heritage but also in his blood and bones. The novel floats along a bounty of vivid food imagery, a twisty-turny river of dishes Indian, French, and everything in between. … Bound to please anyone who has ever been happily coaxed to eat beyond the point of fullness, overwhelmed by the magnetism of just one more bite.”
Imperium: A Novel of Ancient Rome by Robert Harris “a fun read about Cicero and politics in ancient Rome.”
The Informationist: A Thriller by Taylor Stevens. “Fun, fast paced thriller with a strong female protagonist. Vanessa "Michael" Munroe is the ex-missionary's daughter/gunrunner's protege/mercenary's pupil/victim turned professional ‘Informationst.’ Is it over the top and unrealistic? Sure - but it's also a very entertaining diversion set in Africa as opposed to Sweden. If you are looking for an escapist thriller, this is it.”
I Think I Love You by Allison Pearson. Pearson wrote I Don't Know How She Does It a few years ago. (It was a big hit, often compared to Bridget Jones, but for the married woman, vs the singleton. If you haven't read that, it's worth it, and I just found out today that a movie version with Sarah Jessica Parker is coming.) But back to her latest: “In her latest incredibly readable novel, we follow a 13-year-old Welsh girl named Petra (obsessed - I mean OBSESSED - with David Cassidy and suffering through the angst of challenging friendships) and then 38-year-old Petra, whose husband has left her for a younger woman. We also follow 24-year-old Bill (a frustrated former literature student, now ghost writing David Cassidy letters for a magazine devoted to the teen idol) and Bill in his late 40s. Pearson was painfully accurate in depicting Petra's adolescent hardships. I also appreciated how Pearson slowly divulged the story of her relationship with her parents, and they with one another. This isn't going to win any literary awards, though Pearson writes nicely and the story was incredibly engaging. A fun premise. I plowed through the book over a couple of vacation days in Florida. I highly recommend it as a beach book.”
Invisible by Paul Auster "It is beautifully written and far from your average coming of age story. It’s about a student at Columbia in the spring of 1967 and told from different perspectives."
Leaving Unknown by Kerry Reichs. Kerry is a local Washington author. Her first novel, The Best Day of Someone Else's Lifewas on the book list a couple of years ago. From the Booklist review: "Reichs’ newest novel follows 26-year-old Maeve Connelly as she journeys across America in a 1970 Plymouth Roadrunner in an attempt to put her life back together. Accompanied by her bird, Oliver, Maeve works odd jobs in small towns ranging from Okay, Oklahoma, to Toad Suck, Arkansas, in order to keep her car in working condition. Misfortune strikes, however, when her car breaks down near Unknown, Arizona, where she is stranded for months on end. While there, Maeve becomes attached to assorted town denizens, befriending an attractive young doctor and obtaining a job at a bookstore run by a handsome children’s book author. She also begins to reexamine troubles from her past after a secret she has been keeping is revealed... Reichs’ witty and entertaining writing style makes Leaving Unknown a trip worth taking."
Left Neglected by Lisa Genova. "Because of the plot - a 30-something mother suffers a traumatic brain injury in a car accident - I expected this to be sad but story moves along and, in a strange way is uplifting, because of the storytelling. For busy moms, it puts a lot in perspective about what's important."
The Man in the Wooden Hat by Jane Gardam “This is the same story as Old Filth (see below), but told from the perspective of Filth’s wife, Betty, concentrating on their courtship and marriage and then their final days in Dorset, ‘revealing a backstory of secret trysts and desires that each concealed from the other during their long, childless marriage.’ The two books are marvelous together.”
Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War by Karl Marlantes. “Matterhorn is an incredible, realistic story that made me feel like I was just pushed off a chopper and into a landing zone of jungle madness fought by kids barely old enough to vote but not old enough to rent a car. Powerful, eye opening, worthwhile and surprisingly entertaining but probably not for everyone.”
My Name is Memory by Ann Brashares. "Daniel is a rare person who remembers each of his previous lives, and in each one is haunted by the soul of a girl he met briefly in his first life and fell in love with in a subsequent life. He chases after her through centuries and lives, always separated by age or circumstance, trying to get her to remember and love him as well. Total beach read page-turner; apparently planned as a trilogy. Don’t be turned off by the author (of Traveling Pants fame); this is an adult, not teen, book."
My Sisters Made of Light by Jaqueline St. Joan. "This is Ms. St. Joan’s first novel and is just incredible, both moving and thought-provoking. The protagonist, Ujala, is a young Pakistani woman who is inspired by her mother to travel through various parts of rural Pakistan teaching young girls and women. In this capacity, Ujala witnesses a number of “honor crimes” – in which a “woman” (she could be as young as 10) is beaten, permanently maimed (think acid thrown in your face) or killed because she has, in the eyes of her family, brought dishonor to them (by, for example, talking in public with a male cousin). Ujala and her three sisters ultimately all become involved in trying to turn the tide of this cultural horror in Pakistan. While the topic is horrific, the beautiful and passionate story woven by Ms. St. Joan is tinged with hope and optimism. Much like the four sisters, Ms. St. Joan is determined to make a difference in the current lives of Pakistani women who, right now & every day, are being subjected to these honor crimes: half the proceeds from her book are going to be used to fund the building of a safe house in Pakistan where women and children trying to escape abuse can be sheltered."
Never Knowing by Chevy Stevens (This is another title recommended by my publishing insider pal: will be out 7/5/2011) “About the Book: From the acclaimed author of Still Missing comes a psychological thriller about one woman’s search into her past and the deadly truth she uncovers. All her life, Sara Gallagher has wondered about her birth parents. As an adopted child with two sisters who were born naturally to her parents, Sara did not have an ideal home life. The question of why she was given up for adoption has always haunted her. Finally, she is ready to take steps and to find closure. But some questions are better left unanswered.”
New York by Edward Rutherfurd. A novel spanning 350 years of New York history, mostly about one family. Rutherfurd is often compared to James Michener, with his sweeping epics. Previous works include London.
An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin. "The plot revolves around a young woman climbing up through the art world in New York. Martin has a fascinating way of developing characters that are completely unique. It felt current and alive." (Is there nothing Steve Martin can't do?)
That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo. From the Amazon review: “…a novel of deep introspection and every family feeling imaginable, with a middle-aged man confronting his parents and their failed marriage, his own troubled one, his daughter’s new life and, finally, what it was he thought he wanted and what in fact he has. The storytelling is flawless throughout, moments of great comedy and even hilarity alternating with others of rueful understanding and heart-stopping sadness, and its ending is at once surprising, uplifting and unlike anything this Pulitzer Prize winner has ever written.”
Old Filth by Jane Gardam. “This novel tells the story of Sir Edward Feathers, a barrister known as Old Filth ("Failed in London Try Hong Kong"), who becomes a renowned lawyer in the Far East. Told from the perspective of Filth, who was a raj orphan, shipped to Wales and raised by foster families and in boarding schools. He’s now an octogenarian, living in Dorset with his wife of many years, Betty.”
Past Imperfect by Julian Fellowes. Fellowes wrote Snobs, the movie Gosford Park and the magnificent BBC Miniseries, Downton Abbey, a huge hit last year. About this novel: "Fellowes is such a keen chronicler of the demise of the British Aristocracy that I couldn't help enjoy his wry observations. The book, in fact, often read more like social history than fiction. The ending didn't quite deliver for me. But it was still Julian Fellowes, and for me, well worth it."
The Rebellion of Jane Clarke by Sally Gunning. “An historical fiction based on Jane Clark who is an independent young women living during the Revolutionary War in Cape Cod. After refusing to marry a man selected by her father, she is sent to live in Boston and take care of an elderly aunt. During her stay, she meets Henry Knox, John Adams and a host of other Revolutionary characters who all play a role in Boston’s history as well as help Jane make important decisions which show her courage, wisdom and independence. I personally loved the conflict between Jane and what she felt was right verses what was expected of her and the customs of the time. I also loved the emphasis placed on the important role letter writing had during this time frame. And what a ‘hell hole’ Boston was during this very tumultuous time. I read this is two nights … I could not put it down!”
Red Hook Road by Ayelet Waldman. "I heard the author being interviewed on NPR on my way to the beach, and I immediately stopped to download the book. I wasn’t familiar with Ayelet Waldman, but this winter she wrote on fabulous rebuttal to the Tiger Mother essay in the WSJ." (By the way, I notice not ONE of our contributors recommended the Tiger Mom book. Interesting!)
Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier. "Tracy is a local author who grew up in Bethesda and went to BCC. She became famous for Girl with A Pearl Earring. I enjoyed her latest historic novel based on a female paleontologist and a female fossil collector in 18th century England- a time when women weren’t even allowed to study science at college. It takes place in Lyme Regis on the coast and is based on the true story of a working class girl who makes some of the most important discoveries of dinosaurs ever but is used and dismissed by the male scientists. The fossil collector explores the tension of science versus religion – how can dinosaurs exist if they pre-date the creation of the world as described in the bible."
Rules of Civility by Amor Towles (another from my "inside publishing" pal – release date 7/26/2011) “About the Book: A sophisticated and entertaining debut novel about an irresistible young woman with an uncommon sense of purpose. Set in New York City in 1938, Rules of Civility tells the story of a watershed year in the life of an uncompromising twenty-five-year- old named Katey Kontent. Armed with little more than a formidable intellect, a bracing wit, and her own brand of cool nerve, Katey embarks on a journey from a Wall Street secretarial pool through the upper echelons of New York society in search of a brighter future.”
Sisterhood Everlasting: A Novel (The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants) by Ann Brashares (also from friend in publishing – release date 6/14/2011) “About the Book: Return to the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants . . . ten years later. From #1 New York Times bestselling author Ann Brashares comes the welcome return of the characters whose friendship became a touchstone for a generation. Now Tibby, Lena, Carmen, and Bridget have grown up, starting their lives on their own. And though the jeans they shared are long gone, the sisterhood is everlasting.”
Skippy Dies by Paul Murray. “I don't think I'm spoiling anything by saying that Skippy Dies in the very first chapter during a doughnut eating contest with his boarding school room mate, Ruprecht Van Doren. Paul Murray then turns back the clock give us 600+ pages of the events leading up to that moment as well as the its aftermath. Murray clearly remembers what its like to be 14 years old. Skippy and his friends are obsessed with sex, bodily functions, sex, girls, quantum physics and more sex. Some of the funniest moments (and there are plenty of them) come from the boys' banter, flammable flatulence, and finding sex in the most unlikely places (Robert Frost's The Road Less Traveled will really never be the same again for me - but will forever make me smile!). But these kids are also naive, innocent, pretending to be tougher and more worldly than they are and the pain of trying to fit in, get a girl, and be cool all come through with humor and heartbreak. 14 is all about trying on adulthood without knowing your size and style and Murray nails it.”
The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement
by David Brooks. “It's fiction with a lot of non fiction factoids about our generation. Sort of a social study of the educated class which he is always good at pegging well. It's an interesting read and helps you step back and observe what's going on around us and how much intuition influences how we behave.”
The Submission by Amy Waldman (from my publishing insider – release date 8/2/2011) “About the Book: Claire Harwell hasn’t settled into grief; events haven’t let her. Cool, eloquent, raising two fatherless children, Claire has emerged as the most visible of the widows who became a potent political force in the aftermath of the catastrophe. She longs for her husband, but she has found her mission: she sits on a jury charged with selecting a fitting memorial for the victims of the attack. Of the thousands of anonymous submissions that she and her fellow jurors examine, one transfixes Claire: a garden on whose walls the names of the dead are inscribed. But when the winning envelope is opened, they find the designer is Mohammad Khan—Mo—an enigmatic Muslim-American who, it seems, feels no need to represent anyone’s beliefs except his own. When the design and its creator are leaked, a media firestorm erupts, and Claire finds herself trying to balance principles against emotions amid escalating tensions about the place of Islam in America.”
Tales from the Yoga Studio by Rain Mitchell. “Truthfully, I picked this up because in the nano second that I scanned the cover, I saw Anita Diamant's (The Red Tent) name, thinking she was the author... Only when I got home did I realize she just provided a promotional quote. That being said, the book is a great summer read. It reminded me of reading "Something Borrowed," in that it's a quick light read. Very LA, although perhaps it could be very DC or very NYC. “
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell. “Mitchell can take spit globules, gout, puss, blood letting, beatings, anal exploratories, overall bad hygiene, and organized rape and turn it into poetry. I'll admit that the idea of a historical novel set in a 1799 Dutch trading post off the coast of Japan didn't readily appeal to me. And the dialect of the first section (something like garbled cockney that Mitchell calls ‘bygonese’ in an interview in the back of the book) was a little difficult to process at first. Give it time and let yourself absorb Mitchell's deliberate language and vivid imagery. You are in the hands of a master storyteller. A Thousand Autumns pulls in elements of romance, action, political thriller and high seas adventure. His characters are varied and complex - even minor characters have multi-dimensions that add depth to the story. By the end of the book I was fully invested, cheering and mourning the various outcomes of each character's fate.”
The Toss of a Lemon by Padma Viswanathan “My favorite beach read from last summer. I loved it. Definitely good to have the family tree to refer to throughout as the characters get plentiful. I’m a huge Rushdie fan and while she is not quite in his league, she has a hint of his lyricism. It’s just a beautiful story of incredible strength and pure sorrow.”
Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay “A complex fiction set in 6th Century China, this book weaves multiple story lines and numerous characters together fantastically. An assuming young man is gifted 250 very special horses by a neighboring enemy state, which immediately shines a spotlight on him, giving him both great power and great enemies. How he can safely get word of the horses to the emperor and decide how to play within a warring court, determine who are his friends and foes, and the impact that small decisions can make in a larger history play out in the novel.”
The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown. Novel about “a Shakespearean expert who names his three daughters after the Bard's greatest heroines. After a variety of disappointments, these adult daughters find themselves living at home - which gives them the perfect environment to continue to grow up. If you have a familiarity with Shakespeare, you will love this book.” … “As one of 3 girls, I find birth order very telling for one's personality & role in the family. I am Bean chronologically but Rose in personality!” [Ed: This one was borderline "top pick."]
The White Woman on the Green Bicycle by Monique Roffey “Roffey beautifully delivers Trinidad - first in its modern day state and then in its various revolutionary phases over several decades of political turmoil. In the middle of it all are Sabine and George Harwood. George takes a position in an international company and falls in love with the island. His wife Sabine agrees to the initial three year commitment but finds herself trapped by the island's hold on her husband as well as herself. They arrive in Trinidad just as a new political force is taking over the landscape and Sabine becomes obsessed with this new voice of change...only to become disillusioned by his eventual empty promises and the complex hierarchy of race and heritage that permeates every relationship.”
A Young Wife by Pam Lewis (Publishing insider recommendation – release date 6/14/2011) “About the Book: When fifteen-year-old Minke van Aisma travels to Amsterdam to care for the dying wife of an older, wealthy man named Sander DeVries, she has no idea what awaits her. Within hours of his wife's death, Sander proposes marriage, and within days the couple sets sail for the burgeoning oil fields of Argentina. But the future that seemed so bright takes a dark turn the morning their son, Zef, is kidnapped. Dire circumstances dictate that Sander immigrate to New York at once, leaving Minke little choice but to wait for their new baby's arrival, follow Sander to America, and abandon her firstborn. What follows is a triumphant turn-of-the-century saga of love, betrayal, and redemption that takes readers from the opulent life in Amsterdam during the 1900s to rough life on the Argentine coast to the impoverished life of a recent immigrant in New York.”
As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto by Joan Reardon; with Julia Child, Avis DeVoto. "Some people loved the Julie/Julia book. Me? Not so much. This book is lovely and intimate and something that will make you want to cancel your email account and start writing letters again."
The Blessing Of A Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children by Wendy Mogel. "This was published about ten years ago, but I just received it recently. One of the best parenting advice books I've read in a while from a unique perspective. Everyone can take a great deal away from this book!"
Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef by Gabrielle Hamilton. “Hamilton is a chef who, before she started cheffing, got her MFA in writing from the University of Michigan. This experience propels her memoir over that of other chefs and chef-wannabes. It's a really great story, and her economy of language makes this a book worth savoring. I didn't want this book to end.”
Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall. “From Amazon: Full of incredible characters, amazing athletic achievements, cutting-edge science, and, most of all, pure inspiration, Born to Run is an epic adventure that began with one simple question: Why does my foot hurt? In search of an answer, Christopher McDougall sets off to find a tribe of the world’s greatest distance runners and learn their secrets, and in the process shows us that everything we thought we knew about running is wrong. “fabulous read! Just out in paperback.”
Bossypantsby Tina Fey. You all are giving me mixed reviews. Some say hilarious. Others not so impressed. One of you said it “feels disjointed.”
Boundaries with Kids: How Healthy Choices Grow Healthy Childrenby Henry Cloud and John Townsend. “By far THE best parenting book I've read in a while. I thought it to be very thought-provoking, inspirational and had good, practical advice.”
Bringing Home the Birkin: My Life in Hot Pursuit of the World's Most Coveted Handbagby Michael Tonello. A former hair and makeup artist tells the tale of his frenetic effort to buy Birkin bags – the “holy grail” of fashion – in order to resell on ebay. There are waiting lists for the bags, and people pay thousands of dollars over the asking price in order to get their hands on them. [Note to DC area readers – I don’t think I know any such people, but suspect they are the same ones who shop along that stretch of Wisconsin Avenue in Friendship Heights - you know where I mean.]
The Dressmaker of Khair Khana: Five Sisters, One Remarkable Family, and the Woman Who Risked Everything to Keep Them Safeby Gayle (Tzemach) Lemmon. “I went to a book signing about 6 weeks ago and bought the book which I have not yet read, but might be an interesting read to some. I know I am looking forward to reading it. It is about a young woman in Afghanistan who ended up running her own successful dressmaking business with the support of her brother and father - true story. Here's the link to her website: http://www.gaylelemmon.com/”
The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are and I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn't): Telling the Truth About Perfectionism, Inadequacy, and Powerby Brene Brown. “What can I say? I love a good ‘self help’ book. A dear friend emailed me notes from a seminar on shame by Brene she attended. My first reaction was, ‘what a boring subject.’ However, I was blown away by my friend's seminar notes. So much so, in fact, that I bought both books by Brene. I loved both books so much that I am now enrolled in her on line course on Shame. I am ass deep in what triggers shame and how to become resilient to both the triggers and the shame they produce. This book is invaluable to every woman and particularly those who are parents. After reading Brene's highly interesting and relatable books, I am learning to speak Shame. As unsexy as it sounds, both books are so good I could not put them down. The lessons I have learned and will impart on my family and friends are invaluable. Trust me.” …. (the next comments refer to Gifts of Imperfection): “Brown has made her life's work about studying shame. Shame! What a topic. And in this book, she brings shame into the light, helps the reader understand shame, and overcome the limiting power of feeling imperfect. Brown also writes about her research in a way that makes statistics come alive, and very accessible.”
The Good Daughter: A Memoir of My Mother's Hidden Life by Jasmin Darznik. “A sad, sad non-fiction story of a woman's life in 20th century Iran. Would have loved to see more exploration of the emotional conflict of the decision to leave her daughter and the lack of relationship thereafter, but a really interesting read as a woman, mother, and world citizen where cultures come together and are in conflict all the time.”
The Grace of Silence: A Memoir by Michele Norris. “Michele Norris is the host of All Things Considered at NPR. This book is her memoir about her family and growing up as an African American. While it is thought provoking, it is a quick and easy read. She tells a great story, and it may leave the reader wishing to explore their own family histories.”
The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Funby Gretchen Rubin. “I think many of us feel like the author. Our lives our great, but it would be nice if we could sometimes have a little more control and appreciate what we have we might be even happier.”
The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Family's Century of Art and Lossby Edmund de Waal. “When Edmund de Waal inherits a collection of Japanese netsuke (small hand carved figurines), he decides to trace its past back to when it first entered his family's possession. We should be glad that he did. The history of the netsuke collection introduces us to several fascinating characters anda glimpse into the lives of a prominent Jewish family from the late 1800's through to present day.”
Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy's Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back by Todd Burpo. “The title says it all -- a three year old having an emergency operation apparently leaves his body and goes to Heaven. He is instructed by Jesus to go back to Earth, as an answer to the child's father's prayer. Over the course of the years that follow this experience, his story is revealed to his family.”
House of Cards: A Tale of Hubris and Wretched Excess on Wall Streetby William D. Cohan. “Recommended by Malcolm Gladwell when I heard him speak as the best explanation of the financial meltdown.”
How Reading Changed My Lifeby Anna Quindlen “This has been around awhile, but it is quick and true to her pithy writing style. I think I picked it up on a trip to Barnes & Noble with the kids as a 'HA! See?' out of frustration that my children weren't taking enough time to read for pleasure (although seem to have time for emailing, American Idol and other sundry activities). Anyway, it did not disappoint. I enjoyed the book lists in the back, as it inspired me to create my own... and perhaps to inspire my children to do the same :)”
In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlinby Erik Larsen. “Erik Larson writes non-fiction like fiction. In Devil in the White City and Thunderstruck he weaves the stories of real people and murders into major events in history (1893 Chicago World's Fair and invention of the Marconi Wireless respectively). In the Garden of the Beasts, he tracks the lives of U.S. Ambassador William Dodd and his socialite daughter Martha during Ambassador Dodd's time in Berlin during the 1930s. Since the story has Hitler, there is no shortage of murders but this was still at the time when people weren't sure how crazy Hitler was or even if his power would last. Martha Dodd was pretty crazy too, just not the murdering type.”
Just Kidsby Patti Smith “A memoir of rocker Patti Smith's love affair with photographer Robert Mappelthorpe. Won the National Book Award. Written like a prose poem, I was staggered by the love, the creativity, the connection between these two geniuses. Loved.”
Letters to a Young Poetby Rainer Maria Rilke “Written in the earliest part of the last century, these letters from Rilke to a young, struggling poet outline how one can live a life that matters. Rilke's insights and gorgeous writing stand the test of time - his point of view is as relevant today as it was when he wrote it all down.”
Life, on the Line: A Chef's Story of Chasing Greatness, Facing Death, and Redefining the Way We Eatby Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas. “This is Chef Grant Achatz's memoir, written with his business partner and best friend, Nick Kokonas. Grant's restaurant, Alinea, is currently the top-ranked restaurant in America (#7 in the world). The book chronicles Grant's drive for success, his battle against Stage 4 tongue cancer, and how he and Nick built one of the world's best restaurants.”
Marriage and Other Acts of Charity: A Memoirby Kate Braestrop. “( pronounced bra-strap) hilarious memoir!!! a must read!!!!!”
Martha Gellhorn : A Lifeby Caroline Moorehead. “Buckle up! Martha covered every conflict over a span of sixty years, was very close to Elenor Roosevelt and stopped by the White House on a whim, hung out with - and barely tolerated - all of the biggest stars in Hollywood and, as an aside, according to one of Hemingway's sons was the first beautiful woman he'd met who said [the f word]. And that she did. She was never dull and makes me wish I hadn't gone into banking after college! The biographer, Moorehead, was the daughter of one of Martha's dear friends and had access to her abundance of letters and knew her well into her old age. Now, this new twist has me ready to read one of Gellhorn's books Travels With Myself and Another: A Memoire.”
Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Homeby Rhoda Janzen. “This is a wicked-funny memoir about the year the author turns forty, her husband leaves her for a dude he met on Gay.com, and a car accident leaves her seriously injured. She packs her bags and returns to her quirky Mennonite family. They welcome her with open arms but also do things like suggest she date her cousin to get over her heartbreak. I read the entire book on a fight to L.A. and couldn't stop laughing.”
Notes from the Underwire: Adventures from My Awkward and Lovely Life by Quinn Cummings “Remember 1970s and '80s child actor, Quinn Cummings? [ed: She was in Goodbye Girl and was on Family for three years – 'google image' her – you will recognize her]. This is her memoir, which reads like a series of short stories. Stories that will make you guffaw and want to hug the stuffing out of her. Easy to get through... or, you could read a chapter a week over the summer and not feel like you're losing any of the story.”
Official Book Club Selection: A Memoir According to Kathy Griffinby Kathy Griffin. “A laugh out loud book by the Queen of my Comedy Tribe. A hilarious dish by the fearless and hysterical Griffin.”
The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore. From Amazon: "Moore, an investment banker, Rhodes scholar, and former aide to Condoleezza Rice, was intrigued when he learned that another Wes Moore, his age and from the same area of Greater Baltimore, was wanted for killing a cop. Meeting his double and delving into his life reveals deeper likenesses: raised in fatherless families and poor black neighborhoods, both felt the lure of the money and status to be gained from dealing drugs. That the author resisted the criminal underworld while the other Wes drifted into it is chalked up less to character than to the influence of relatives, mentors, and expectations that pushed against his own delinquent impulses, to the point of exiling him to military school." .... “True story, quick read, thought provoking.”
I Remember Nothing: and Other Reflectionsby Nora Ephron. “I’m a huge fan of Nora Ephron, and I listened to this collection of essays as an audiobook, read by Nora Ephron. The essays are wonderful and as always, she’s very entertaining.”
Sex on the Moon: The Amazing Story Behind the Most Audacious Heist in History
by Ben Mezrich (Another soon-to-be-published suggestion from my mole in the publishing biz – in stores on 7/12/2011) “About the Book: Thad Roberts, a fellow in a prestigious NASA program had an idea—a romantic, albeit crazy, idea. He wanted to give his girlfriend the moon. Literally. Thad convinced his girlfriend and another female accomplice, both NASA interns, to break into an impregnable laboratory at NASA—past security checkpoints, an electronically locked door with cipher security codes, and camera-lined hallways—and help him steal the most precious objects in the world: the moon rocks.”
Stories I Only Tell My Friends: An Autobiographyby Rob Lowe. "His book is a terrific fun read. It is juicy without being trashy and his insights about himself, others and Hollywood prove that he is intelligent and thoughtful as well as adorable."
Strength in What Remainsby Tracy Kidder. "Amazing true story of how a young man escapes the genocide in Burundi/Rwanda and builds a life for himself in the U.S. starting with absolutely nothing. Truly inspirational."
Townie: A Memoirby Andre Dubus. "Andre had a gritty, violent childhood and he talks honestly about the desire and the thrills of his own violence. He also explores his complex and intense relationship with his father, writer Andre Dubus II. I was glad that Andre did not focus on his own eventual success, never mentioning Oprah etc. This is not a rags to riches tale - its the story of a boy who becomes a man. A man who can write in a way that compels you to keep reading. Before I knew it, my weekend was over and I had barely moved from my seat or taken my eyes off the pages of this book."
The True History of Chocolate (Second Edition)by Sophie Coe. “Chocolate + culture + history = interesting read. Caveat Emptor: I am the one who brought home "The Story of Salt" to read to my then young children. But if you're into this kind of thing, it is rather fascinating to see how a food we take for granted has influenced economies and culture for thousands of years.”
When I Am Playing with My Cat, How Do I Know That She Is Not Playing with Me?: Montaigne and Being in Touch with Lifeby Saul Frampton. From Amazon: "After enduring in short succession the deaths of his daughter; father; best friend; and brother, 'killed absurdly, tragically, by the blow from a tennis ball,' Montaigne retreated to his tower library, intending to write and prepare himself for his own death. Out of this dismal exercise came Les Essais, his eccentric and invaluable essays on his milieu, philosophy, and preoccupations. Frampton tucks a good deal of biography into his tour of the evolution of the essays and the events that inspired them—but his extraordinary achievement is in conveying—and inviting the reader to commune with—Montaigne's unique sensibility and his take on death, sex, travel, friendship, kidney stones, the human thumb, and above all, "the power of the ordinary and the unremarkable, the value of the here-and-now." This scholarly romp through the Renaissance is a jewel."
When I Stop Talking, You'll Know I'm Dead: Useful Stories from a Persuasive Manby Jerry Weintraub. “A brilliant memoir by a brilliant hustler. My interest was peaked when I saw him interviewed. His charisma is such that he is married (40 plus years )and lives with his (younger ) girlfriend. As if this is not outlandish enough, his wife and girlfriend are best friends. After watching his HBO documentary, 'His Way,' I totally got how Jerry managed to get away with both a wife and a girlfriend. His riveting life story takes him as a scrappy kid in the Bronx through an unsurpassed career as a Music promoter to a movie producer. It is a peak behind the curtain of the high and lows of his career as a promoter for Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, John Denver, and a movie producer of several famous movies including, but not limited to, the Oceans series. I could not put this book down. I wish he was my next door neighbor. I love the guy.”
A Year and Six Seconds: A Love Story by Isabel Gillies (from my mole inside the publishing world– on shelves 8/2/2011) “About the Book: At the heart of this sweetly humorous and incisive follow-up memoir to her bestselling Happens Every Day: An All-Too-True Story is a Julia Child story Isabel's mother used to tell. While displaying a delicately rendered nest-like sugar basket for the camera, Julia fumbles her creation and sends it crashing to the floor. Briefly looking at the mess, Julia announces that the only thing to do is to start again, and she resolutely turns back to the stove to measure out more sugar. Thirty five, single mother of two, unemployed, broke, and on the heels of a shattering divorce, Isabel leaves the life she created in Ohio to move back into her parents' New York City apartment. Thus, in the spirit of Julia Child's message, Isabel dusts herself off and starts over, and in turn, learns to embrace love and life again.”
NOTE: For the 2011 "Older Fiction/Favorites From Previous Years," click on "older posts" below this posting.