Friday, May 27, 2011


This section is devoted to older fiction, as well as books that have previously appeared on the Beach Books list.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery. This top pick from 2009 continues to get raves. Contributor comment: “A difficult book to truly describe, as any description (including the summary on the book flap) given makes the book sound rather boring, or just plain odd. The quick plot summary is that it describes the goings-on in a posh Parisian apartment building, focused around the philosophical concierge (who tries hard to hide her true self behind the stereotype of the surly Paris laborer) and a precocious twelve year old (who has decided to commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday as she feels she is surrounded by idiots). A new tenant brings the two of them out of their shells, and into each other's lives. While suffering from a few "plot difficulties" in my mind, the overall writing and themes of the book are fascinating, especially if you enjoy philosophy and contemplation.”

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. Another still-loved book, this one (non-fiction), from the 2010 list. "Written with the values and wisdom of a very different world than the hospital room in which the story begins but a compelling history of one woman's cancer cells. The book follows the path that the cells have taken to become the single best known research cell line and the discomfort and pain that Henrietta's family have felt due to their lack of knowledge of the project and their perceived invasion of family privacy."

The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman. This, too, was a top pick in 2010 and I still get recommendations. “A variety of cleverly woven character studies of individuals working at an English-speaking newspaper in Italy. Lovely vignettes.”

The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer. This historical fiction novel – an epic tale and love story about Jewish Hungarians before and during WWII was on last year’s fiction list and was mentioned by several people again.

To Kill a Mockingbird: 50th Anniversary Editionby Harper Lee. “I reread To Kill A Mockingbird, a childhood favorite, this year for its 50th Anniversary. I hadn’t read it since high school and was struck by how meaningful it is to me now in totally different ways. Atticus’ parenting style made me analyze my own parenting (can anyone be as wise as Atticus?). I can now really appreciate how wonderfully Lee captures childhood and the relationships among all parts of her Southern society. If you haven’t read this classic recently, you must!”

Let the Great World Spin: A Novel by by Colum Mcann. "Follows the lives of a group of individuals immediately before and after Philippe Petit walked a tightrope between the World Trade Center on August 7, 1974. Although the book does not feature Petit as one of its central characters, the lives of all of the main characters intersect with Petit's walk in a key way, creating a neat puzzle around the event.”

Life of Pi by Yann Martel. “The story of adventure that challenges your sensibilities of fantasy and reality. Through the plight of Pi, who ends up in a small lifeboat with a Bengal tiger and other animals from a sunken ship, we are participants in Pi’s struggle for survival and his ultimate rendering of his truth: ‘I have a story that will make you believe in God.’ I thoroughly enjoyed this book and the way in which it tells the tale of the harsh and often barbaric actions of animals who are fighting to live while ultimately presenting the reader with another ‘truth’ that pushes the limits of what we believe is reality.”

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson. From last year’s list! “This really is a delightful book. It begins as an Austen-esque comedy of manners but develops into an interesting commentary on prejudice and class in ‘civilized’ society. When I started the book I had a vision of Major Pettigrew in my head as a somewhat bumbling old curmudgeon but after several chapters I realized how sharp and witty he really was. His relationship with Mrs, Ali who owns the local shop is completely believable and so sweet that I couldn't help but fall in love with them falling in love.”

No Name by Willkie Collins. Long-time followers of this blog know that I included The Woman in Whiteas a top pick a few years back. There were a few grumbles, as the prose by this Victorian father of the detective novel is rather, well, VICTORIAN. But (I SWEAR!) once you get the cadence down, he is so worth it. I thought "No Name" was even better than "Woman in White," and so did Drew. From an Amazon reviewer, who summarized it aptly: “Two sisters go on different paths on coming to terms with life after being mistreated by a cruel twist of fate, and being the victim of inhumane Victorian-era society (and its laws). The elder sister carries on without mishap, while the younger sister seeks justice at any expense ... to the extent of performing unethical and criminal activities herself. While seeking justice she encounters some rather equally cunning individuals (..another woman in particular), and the story unfolds into a battle of who can outfox whom.” The characters in this book are absolutely amazing, and it is a TOTAL page turner. All three of Collins' books I've read have been that way - completely mesmerizing.

The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follet. “Historical fiction at its best. Also enjoyed his sequel, World Without End. Also love his lower-brow novels - Key to Rebecca, etc. etc.”

A River Runs Through It and Other Stories by Norman Maclean, 1976. Amazon Reader Review: The book is actually three short stories but the focus is clearly on the novella "A River Runs Through It". On the surface, the title story is his recollections of his father, a Presbyterian minister, and his troubled but talented brother, with whom he fished. Set in the Montana of Maclean's youth, he paints exquisitely vivid and beautiful word pictures of a land and water and family now gone. At the core is the frustration of the often-futile attempt of trying to help another or trying to save a loved one from their self-destruction."

Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay– "fiction but fact based about the round up of French Jews in Paris in 1942 – American journalist living in Paris is challenged to write about (the often forgotten by the French) event and finds a link from a survivor to her husbands family. Very good – disturbing as much of is told through a child’s eyes. "

Selected Poemsby William Blake. “I picked this one up as it seemed every other thing I was reading referred to Blake. And since I'd last read him in the dusty basement of the college library, seemed now was the time. His poems are fresh, and lively, and spiritual, and fantastical. I felt as though I was breathing pure oxygen as I read.”

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Luis Zafon – “Set in Barcelona in the 1950s, this a wonderful, intricate (long) story full of interesting characters, mystery, romance, adventure and fantasy. Terrific story telling!”

Shantaram by by Gregory David Roberts. We had this on the list years ago, but a couple of you read it this year (including Drew, who I know liked it a lot). My dad listened to the audio version and said the reader was fantastic - an astonishing master of multiple accents. (You'd have to be going on a looooong summer car ride, as this is a looooong book!)

Shogun (and other titles) by James Clavell. One of our contributors offered a reminder of this old favorite series. ShoGun, King Rat, Noble House (the best), TaiPan. (Note: The same reader also recommends the Phillipa Gregory books, but says to avoid Wiseacre.)

Something Borrowed by Emily Giffin “From the ‘oldie but goodie’ pile – pure chick lit, it’s now a movie. This book is perfect for a sunny day under a beach umbrella. It’s the story or Rachel and Darcy, childhood friends who are turning 30 and living the life in Manhattan. Rachel is a smart, loyal, dependable associate at a big law firm. Darcy is a stunning, fashionable marketing exec who’s engaged to one of Rachel’s classmates from law school. Then the plot thickens…” (A movie is out, right?)

Something Blue by Emily Giffin – “The sequel, for day two under your beach umbrella. It picks up where Something Borrowed left off, telling the story from the perspective of Darcy.”

Stoner by John Williams. “Beautifully, simply written story about college professor's difficult life (book published in 1970s).”

The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar. “A poignant story set in contemporary Bombay, this book tells the story of two women whose lives are intricately bound together through the complicated relationship of master and servant. The trappings of their class differences which both drives them together yet tears them apart is vividly explored through realities of their place in the socially stratified culture of India.”

Whose Body? (Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries) Dorothy Sayers. Wimsey satisfies the Anglophile, as well as the lover of mystery AND romance. This first of Sayers’ famous Lord Peter Wimsey series is a wonderful detective story. He’s a magnificent, many-layered character. The romance begins with later Wimseys, starting with Strong Poison, which introduces Wimsey's love interest, Harriet Vane (on trial for murder).

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