When I finally retired from Darvill’s Bookstore in April, it was with as much excitement as regret. After working there for over 11 years, it felt like home. I met people from all over the world, and talked ardently with so many of them about books. The store’s sunny yellow walls, huge multi paned windows, views of the water, eclectic music, fresh flowers, carefully curated mix of gifts and books, excellent espresso, and of course, enthusiastic and intelligent staff all combined to make it an inspiring and delightful place to work. Talking to people about what they had read and loved and what I had read and loved was my favorite part of the job. It was infinitely satisfying to put special books into customer’s hands. Here are some of my favorite novels, of which I sold many copies but have not yet reviewed in this blog.
This small gem, which both Jenny and I read and loved and sold to customers many times over, has a strong sense of place and unusual setting–the dramatic Snake River Canyon in Idaho. Three men, all haunted by different demons, drift together and form a crew to construct a huge ramp in the “middle of nowhere”. If you have ever worked outdoors, particularly on construction, this book will strongly resonate. The feel of the weather, the emotional work of fitting in with a crew, the lack of distractions in a remote location, all combine to make this character-driven novel so memorable. In particular, a troubled young man who joins the crew is mentored by the foreman in a way that is subtly skillful and caring, without appearing so. Carlson, an underrated writer of award-winning short stories, writes in a spare and elegant style that strongly appeals to me.
In this debut novel, Yohan, a young Korean who was a POW at the end of the Korean War is able to emigrate to a small port town in Brazil to start a new life. He is emotionally damaged, but in his newly adopted country he is treated with generosity and kindness which surprises him. He is taken in by an old Japanese tailor and becomes his apprentice. They live a quiet, almost austere existence, and the book poetically and gracefully unveils their years together, and Yohan’s search for connection and love, which mostly eludes him. Through the years, he meets and comes to know others with his same aloneness–in particular two young orphans who often enter and exit his life, like butterflies. Yoon illustrates in this elegantly written novel that memories are key to shaping our identities; we need them to make sense of our place in a world that often seems to make no sense.
If I were forced to pick one favorite author today, Brooks would be on the short list of contenders. All her books have captivated me, and this is one of her best–a Pulitzer Prize winner in 2006. The novel is based on the character of Peter March, the absent father from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, and is also based on Alcott’s own father Bronson, a transcendentalist. The story surprised me with its intelligent and well-developed depiction of life during the Civil War. March, who left his home and family to serve as a chaplin for the Union army, had his idealism and abolitionist values marred by the harsh truths of slavery and brutal costs of war. His life is followed for twenty years, including his return home and attempt to reintegrate with his family. Not too different from the challenges of any soldier in a time of war–any war.
Never have I encountered two such mis-matched and intriguing characters as the unlikely heroes of this coming of age-story, set at the time of the siege of Leningrad during WW II. Lev, the intelligent and self-doubting son of a well-known Jewish poet, is arrested for stealing, and finds himself sharing a cell with the handsome and confident Kolya, a Slav from the Russian army arrested for various wartime infractions. In prison, they are one day given the chance to save their own lives by agreeing to obtain a dozen eggs for a party official’s cake. In a city of the starving and dying, the two young men set off on a journey of terror, humor, desire and despair. How Benioff pulls off balancing the horror and humor of the situation is astonishing–I was left with delight and pathos after experiencing this story and its characters.
Two of my favorite books we keep selling at the bookstore are these beautiful and plainspoken companion novels, set in rural Colorado among small towns and isolated farmers. The older, sometimes crotchety pair of McPheron brothers live on a cattle ranch inherited from their parents, outside of the small town of Holt. Their routine and very quiet lives are upended when they agree to take in a local pregnant teen-ager, Victoria, whom they gradually adopt as “family”. Plainsong is the first of the two books, published in 1999, and was a finalist for the National Book Award. In the sequel, Eventide, Victoria has stayed on the ranch after the birth of her baby, but must leave because she has a chance to attend college. Change comes in multiples in this equally compelling follow-up, and the family the brothers have slowly created over the course of the two stories becomes family to me, also.
It was years before I finally read this classic, and when I did, I wondered why I had waited so long! Set in Africa in the 1890′s at the beginning of the colonial era and arrival of Christian missionaries, it is loosely based on Achebe’s own life. Okonkwo, a highly respected Igbo tribal elder, experiences the beginning edge of this cataclysmic change in his country of Nigeria. He approaches it slowly, with intellect, skepticism, and the many deep emotions that this change evokes. First published in 1958, and never a Pulitzer Prize winner, the book has actually eclipsed all awards by becoming the best selling African novel in the world, an honor which it still holds. A book ahead of its time, of its time, and for always.