Book Recommendations–Fall Treats

 

Fall delivers so many treats, and one of the best is the abundance of new books that publishers traditionally release at this time of year.  The stacks by my bed, by my reading chair, and on my desk constitute only a small number of a glut of new titles, too many to mention at once.  It is a bit like choosing my favorite Halloween candy from a particularly large stash.  But wait!  These are all sugar-free, and so, so yummy!

 

The Miniaturist, by Jessie Burton

9780062306814_p0_v3_s114x166What charmed me about this book are its themes–miniatures (as in doll-like houses), Amsterdam in the 17th century, and a bright and unique young heroine who is a new bride in an arranged marriage. Nella is from a formerly-wealthy country family, who marries and moves to the house of a wealthy older man in Amsterdam, a man who is kind but curiously detached and physically remote.  For a wedding present, however, he presents Nella with a cabinet house (based on an actual 17th-century dollhouse at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam) that replicates  every room in their  home. Her efforts to furnish it lead Nella to an enigmatic miniaturist, who recreates the furnishings, people and animals of the home a little at a time, and who must know more about the family than Nella, possibly foreseeing things that have not yet come to pass.  Burton brings Amsterdam vividly to life, fascinating enough by itself.  And the plot reads like a thriller, as Nella tries to understand the family and its secrets. This is a surprisingly accomplished first novel, much deeper and richer than I expected.

 

The Interior Circuit: a Mexico City Chronicle, by Francisco Goldman

Goldman first came to my attention with his haunting novel/memoir, Say Her Name, which recounted the death of his young wife Aura in a freak surfing accident in 2007. In the 9780802122568_p0_v3_s114x166 intervening years, while mourning her death, Goldman decided to spend as much time as he could in Mexico City, where he and Aura had met and lived.  He wanted to learn to drive the circuit, a thirty mile ring around the city, partly to immerse himself in the city, and to draw symbolic ring around his grief.  Driving in Mexico City (known as “the DF”) is not for the faint of heart, as neighborhood streets intersect each other at unanticipated angles, dumping cars into thoroughfares with no merging lanes, each car driven by “wild-eyed, eager race-car drivers who veer off track”.  What Goldman contemplates, during his examination of the city, is not only his personal grief, but the ongoing tragedy of Mexico’s narcoviolence, which in previous decades had left the city “untouched, although still corrupt”. Goldman has tackled and brought into focus a portrait of one of the world’s great historic, tragic and beautiful cities.

 

Lila, by Marilynne Robinson

9780374187613_p0_v1_s114x166For years, I was almost embarrassed to say that I had read only one of Robinson’s books, Housekeeping, and skipped her newer novels.  Now I’m glad I waited, for Lila is the backstory of a central character for Robinson’s best selling novels Gilead (2004) and Home (2008).  I can hardly wait to tackle those two that I missed, now that I am so taken in by her unusual characters and the small town in Iowa that they inhabit.  Lila, a former orphan has had a tough life on the run, barely surviving before (and after) being “stolen” by an older girl who saw the small child neglected and abandoned.  Years later, Lila finds the small town of Gilead, where she ends up settling in (against her instincts) and even marrying an older man, the local preacher.  Robinson is such a skilled writer she can handle burning material with the most delicate care.  Particularly in her portrayal of the relationship of Lila and her new husband, I often held my breath to see what Lila would say or do, only to end up more breathless at the outcome.  A tender, tough and beautiful story.

 

The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons, by Sam Kean

How could I ever resist a book that is subtitled “the history of the human brain” by 9780316182348_p0_v1_s114x166popular science writer Kean (The Disappearing Spoon and The Violinist’s Thumb)? What makes Kean’s book particularly appealing, (amidst hundreds of books about the brain) is his skill using true stories of unusual doctors, maladies and cures to illustrate this history.  The history of medicine often seems to be one ill-timed, gruesome and unbelievable experiment after another that can make the stomach turn and the mind reel.  Yet among those stories the creativity and determination of doctors who have paved the way for innovations in mental health, surgery, and infectious disease cures stands out.  It would be hard to pick a favorite chapter, as each illuminated a part or function of the brain that I did not want to miss. Science writing is one of the strongest genres being published today, and if I were you, I would not want to miss this one!

 

The Secret Place, by Tana French

9780670026326_p0_v4_s114x166Many of you know by now that I am a sucker for anything Tana French writes, and her newest is no exception.  This is her fifth novel in her Dublin-set mystery series, yet each of her books can stand alone, as she is adept at not necessarily following the same set of detectives each time. She often uses a minor character from a previous novel to play a major role in a newer novel.  In her typically lovely prose, she plumbs the complexities and depths of her characters in a way that few mystery writers do (P.D. James comes to mind, yet French can do as well with fewer words).  A recurring theme in all her books is adolescence, and in this novel a pair of detectives are assigned a cold case involving the year old murder of Chris Harper, who was a student at an exclusive Dublin school. French so beautifully renders the motivations and behaviors of cliques in the world of young women in this book, I could not put it down.  Warning: do not start The Secret Place unless you have hours to spend at one sitting, and have snacks in hand.

 

The Paying Guests, by Sarah Waters

Waters is the author of five other novels (including Night Watch (2006) and Tipping the Velvet, 1998), which I have not read but probably will now. Initially the9781594633119_p0_v1_s114x166 plot and setting of this novel intrigued me, and I was surprised at how masterfully she combined a keen examination of England’s post-Edwardian years, a lesbian love story, and a gripping thriller so seamlessly. With two brothers killed in WWI and her father’s death shortly after, Frances Wray and her mother are left struggling to maintain their London home with a huge debt.  They decide to take in an unhappily married couple as boarders, and the upshot is that the two women fall in love. Waters is known for her unusually silky prose, and a talent for lulling the reader into her smooth (and often comic) plot, then turning up the heat to scorching. A gripping mystery I could not stop thinking about, even two weeks after I finished it.

 

 

 

Book Recommendations–My Hometown

I grew up in the gorgeous Wenatchee Valley of Washington State, and just returned from a visit there for my 50th high school reunion. In spite of the growth it has experienced since my parents moved there in the mid-40’s, it is still gorgeous to me–lush orchards backed by high dryland plateaus and the foothills of the Cascades, with a wide blue ribbon of the Columbia winding through it.  To grow up in a small town during the 50’s and 60’s felt safe and magical–how lucky I was! Whenever I visit, it makes me long for “home”, and here are some stories that remind me of my hometown.

 

9780393967951_p0_v1_s114x166Winesburg, Ohio, by Sherwood Anderson

When I read this story in high school, it made a deep impression on me, and when I read it again as an adult it felt as fresh and new as it had the first time. It is one of my very, very favorite classics.  Anderson published this novel in 1919, and it is considered his greatest work. Young George Willard, the somewhat omniscient narrator, is a reporter for the small town newspaper of Winesburg.  He explores the lives of its citizens in a series of “sketches” that illuminate their inner lives and struggles to fit in–into small town life and into themselves.  Small towns have a way of both judging and enfolding, strengthening and weakening, but ultimately help us come to know ourselves in ways city life cannot.  I obviously love small towns, and recognized so many character types that I knew growing up, in this universal tale of individual lives woven together.

 

A River Lost, the Life and Death of the Columbia, by Blaine Harden

When I recently heard this author speak, I was so impressed that I bought the book 9780393342567_p0_v1_s114x166immediately and read it in two sittings.  Harden has a finely-honed journalistic gift: being compassionate toward both sides of controversial issues.  In this case, it is the pro-environmentalist- salmon-lovers and tribes, vs. farmers and businesses who need water for irrigation and cheap energy from the many dams on the Columbia.  Even though I grew up on the river, there were so many things I did not know about it until I read this book, particularly how much barge traffic the river handles, and how dumping more water over the spillways at particular times of the year is bringing back the salmon fisheries.  A very worthy read for anyone from the Northwest.

 

9780874221220_p0_v1_s114x166Rufus Woods, the Columbia River & the Building of Modern Washington, by Robert Ficken

This biography of the ever-eccentric, energetic publisher of the Wenatchee Daily World (now the Wenatchee World) was one of the Northwest’s most influential men.  His tireless promotion of Wenatchee and the Grand Coulee Dam had its supporters and detractors, and no one seemed to be in the middle!  I was only five when he died, yet our family was closely intertwined with the Woods'; our family “grew up” with the family of Rufus’ cousin, Warren, who also worked for the paper. It is still owned by the Woods family, and grandson Rufus is now the publisher. The story was fascinating to me because it not only examined the life of someone who cast a giant shadow in our valley, but because the politics and logistics of building the dam showcased federal policy and history in ways that are still being felt today. I loved reading more about a most unusual and memorable man, and more history about “my hometown.”

 

Hometown, by Tracy Kidder

I will at least try anything Kidder writes, and have loved almost all of them.  This is one I did not know until recently, and in true Kidder style he burrows into his subject (this one, the small town of Northampton, Massachusetts) and examines it in engrossing detail.  Most 9780671785215_p0_v1_s114x166of the complex drama of life in this small town (population 12,000) is examined through the eyes of Tommy O’Conner, a town cop.  But there are other characters equally complex:  a single mother given a chance to attend  prestigious Smith College, an executive with mental illness, and several others. What emerges is an unflinching yet tender portrait. While this may not be Kidder’s strongest book, even his runners-up are better than most authors’ first place offerings.

 

9780893011512_p0_v1_s260x420Fruit Fields in My Blood: Okie Migrants in the West, by Toby Sonneman and Rick Steigmeyer

Sonneman and Steigmeyer lived the migrant life of fruit pickers in the 1970’s, traveling from Florida to Washington State to follow the harvest. They lived within loose family groups of mostly Okie (former Oklahoman) migrants, trying to organize an advocacy group, which ultimately fell apart.  Much of the text and photographs were written about Washington’s harvests, a topic well-known by most of us who grew up or live in the Wenatchee Valley. Steigmeyer’s photographs are intimate and fascinating, capturing more of the grace and grit than the hardships of migrant life. They remind me of much of striking 1930’s WPA photographs.  Sonneman’s text is gracious and rich in detail about a way of life that has all but disappeared, as more migrant families stay put in one area.  This is a book I have owned for years, was a Western States Book Award winner in 1992, and  I would not part with it for anything!

 

East of the Mountains, by David Guterson

This is unlike most of my recommendations in that I loved most of the book, except for9781400032655_p0_v1_s114x166 the ending, which seemed not a reliable fit with the rest of the story.  So if you can ignore that, here is a painting that captures the Wenatchee Valley, where I grew up, perfectly.  Guterson describes the feel of the orchards, the harvest, weather, and the people so tactilely.  His story follows the fate of Ben Givens, a widower and retired surgeon, as he grapples with his terminal cancer.  He keeps living life, engaging with people around him and those whose paths cross his, and they represent a rich and varied group–a migrant worker, a drifter, a young couple, and a sage veterinarian, to name a few.  He hunts where my own Dad used to hunt, and captures the Palisades, south of Wenatchee, so well I could practically smell my Dad’s hunting jacket, pockets stuffed with Chukkers we would later have stewed for dinner.

 

Book Recommendations–Lost Memory

There is scarcely a conversation with friends around my age (55-85, let’s say) who don’t either have memory loss themselves, have a family member or had a family member with memory loss, or greatly fear memory loss.  I fit in all those categories myself, so have been searching out books that are insightful, honest, and speak scientifically to this topic. The reason I can remember their titles is because I have been keeping a book journal for 40 years, and refer to it often. A key for dealing with memory loss: write down what you need to remember!  Here are some of my favorite reads on the subject.

 

The Housekeeper and the Professor, by Yoko Ogawa

9780312427801_p0_v1_s114x166Absolutely unique and charming, this short novel about a Japanese housekeeper and the former math professor she assists takes unexpected turns without throwing the reader out of the car, so to speak.  Both central characters are unnamed, yet we become intimately acquainted with them as the housekeeper tries everything she can to deal with the professor’s dementia and improve his quality of life.  Aid comes partly from her son, a latchkey child whom the professor convinces to come to his house after school.  They form a curious attachment, as the professor tries to help him with his math homework and the boy renews the professor’s love of baseball.  The effect of the professor’s love of math, his ability to engage both mother and son in its mystery and beauty in spite if his significant dementia, made for a story both delicate and heroic.

 

In the Shadow of Memory, by Floyd Skloot

A friend recently recommended this older (2002) and unknown title to me, and all I 9780803293229_p0_v1_s114x166can say is–wow!  Skloot, a well-known author and father of also-well-known writer Rebecca Skloot, lost significant memory when in his early 40’s, due to a serious viral infection.  Unusually eloquent, the book was compiled from a series of essays Skloot wrote and published after his illness, describing the process of “reforming” memories, learning to accept those that he will never have back, and simplifying his life significantly to cope on a daily basis with the physical effects of memory loss. He also discusses the effect that early childhood trauma can play in later memory loss and dementia, due to compromised immune systems.  Poetically beautiful and absolutely engaging, I am marking it in my journal as one of my most prized reads this year.

 

Still Alice, by Lisa Genova

Another charmer, and definitely better-known, is this novel of a 9781439102817_p0_v2_s114x166woman professor who starts discovering her own memory loss when she cannot find her way home from a routine run.  She teaches cognitive psychology at Harvard, is in her early 50’s, but is soon diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s.  What I found particularly fascinating was the point of view of Alice, who both watches and comments on her progressive loss as the disease advances.  Many have commented that the book was a heartbreaker, and it was, but it was so compassionate and honest that I could not help come away better informed, more fascinated with the workings of the mind, and even uplifted by this amazing story.  Recommended reading for everyone, as I believe we are all touched by severe memory loss at some point in our lives.

 

9780062309662_p0_v4_s114x166Elizabeth is Missing, by Emma Healey

Another slant on memory loss, this new debut novel combines the story of Maud, a woman in her 80’s with quite severe dementia, with a mystery, family love story, and humor.  Healey’s novel uniquely combines all three genres, and it kept me turning pages well into the night.  Maud’s challenge is that she has found a small keepsake in her garden that she believes belongs to her friend Elizabeth.  However, as many times as she calls and visits Elizabeth’s home, to the extreme frustration of her daughter and care givers, she cannot find Elizabeth.  Believing that something is wrong, yet unable to communicate this to those around her, provides both humor and heartbreak.  And, the beautifully rendered portrait of the seesaw between caring and worrying vs. independence for an elderly family member was what gave the story special depth and meaning for me.

 

Remembering the Music, Forgetting the Words, by Kate Whouley

Author Whouley wrote an earlier book that I loved (Cottage9780807003312_p0_v1_s114x166 for Sale, Must be Moved); she picks topics that prick my curiosity. Having lost my  Mom just over a year ago to age-related dementia, I needed to read someone’s else’s view of the sad, frustrating and funny experiences that come with it.  Whouley had it a lot harder than I–she was an only child, and on a good day her Mom was only slightly demanding with her daughter.  Their relationship was prickly, and soon after Whouley’s first book was published, she realized that something was wrong, and that her Mom could no longer live alone and care for herself and her cat.  The story of her mother’s last years struck a deep cord with me–Whouley finally got to experience her mother as a deeply flawed and loving human being. There was a kind of healing that happens when a parent forgets so much of the recent past and can only deal with the immediate present.

 

Moonwalking with Einstein, by Joshua Foer

9780143120537_p0_v1_s114x166Here is a very different book about memory–in this case, how to expand it and even win a contest for developing exceptional memory!  Author Foer took an interest in a very unique subculture of competitive memorizers, and put himself under the tutelage of a former winner of the U.S. Memory Championships to learn how to improve memory (and why  one would want to!)  Along the way he explores the latest in memory research, the tricks of the memory trade, and his often-hilarious experiences preparing for the memory competition.  His story provided me with a unique view of how historical inventions, such as the printed book and of course technology, have caused humans to lose memory, and the ability to remember (much as unused muscles atrophy).  A happy counterpoint to the many books on memory loss that I have been reading. Here’s hoping I can improve my own memory, or look upon memory loss as a DRAM too full that needs to be upgraded or erased!

Book Recommendations–Favorite Classics

Summer seems to be the time of year I love to pick up classics that I have not yet read, or reread old favorites. Because I was an English major in college, I have read what seems like a million classics and I’m still working on the “pile”.  Just this week I picked up Flaubert’s Madame Bovary for the first time, and am loving it. I thought it would be easy to make a short list of favorite classics, but they all crowded in, vying for attention when it came time to pick only a few.  So look for more favorite classics in a future post–there are just too many great ones to choose from.

 

The Razor’s Edge, by W. Somerset Maugham

9781400034208_p0_v1_s114x166I admit being very partial to Maugham, and have read almost everything he has written (except maybe his letters).  It was hard to pick from Cakes and Ale, The Moon and Sixpence (reviewed in an earlier blog), or Of Human Bondage.  Many say that this was his most serious novel–it is certainly that–and much more.  Maugham himself “narrates” the story of four characters who are young and in search of their life’s place in the world.  But the story primarily follows Larry, a young American who was a pilot in WWI then came to Paris to recover and pursue a spiritual path in a world he finds too materialistic. Maugham moves his plots along well without dragging, and at the same time fully develops his characters, revealing all their flaws while not judging them. He respects the reader and his characters enough to let them figure out their own lives.  That is what I love about this man’s insightful and subtle writing.

 

An American Tragedy, by Theodore Dreiser9780451531551_p0_v1_s114x166

I remember reading this classic when I first started graduate school, and was quite overwhelmed to finally understand how excellent fiction can examine and make one ponder the many moral dimensions of life. Dreiser published this story, based on a sensational murder case, in 1925 to almost as much publicity as the original crime.  His story  is of a young Clyde Griffiths, born into a poor religious family but who, after being hired by a wealthy uncle, aspires to much more. In his quest to move into a higher stratum of society, a tragedy occurs which changes his life dramatically. This is really a detailed portrait of American values and cultural differences in the early 20th century–the economic divide, political corruption, moral hypocrisies, and how the very essence of a person’s character develops.  I thought of it as a “must read” after finishing it, and am still of that mind and anxious to read it again.

 

9781486145621_p0_v1_s114x166Women in Love, by D. H. Lawrence

One summer I read one of Lawrence’s books after another, enchanted by the sensuality of his writing style and subject matter. I was still young, and still romantic. While he was most famous for Lady Chatterley’s Lover (like most people, I read it at about age 14) , my favorite was this title.  Although Lawrence was always at the center of controversy for his writing, his popularity has fallen off in the past 20 years or so, (probably because he did not produce any dystopian novels!)  Women in Love follows the relationships of two couples, one of them obviously modeled on Lawrence and his wife Frieda (Birkin and Ursula in the book). The highs and lows of their courtships and love, their intellectual pursuits (i.e. long philosophical discussions about art and life), and their differences are primary themes of the book.  Many critics think this is Lawrence’s best novel, and I do agree, although The Rainbow comes close (and is the predecessor to this story).

 

Middlemarch, by George Eliot

If I had to pick one favorite from this group, this would be it.  It is considered not only  9781593080235_p0_v1_s114x166Eliot’s masterpiece, but a masterpiece when held up against most English literature, for good reason.  But before I list the reasons, I will say that all of her other novels have also seriously impressed me–Daniel Deronda in particular. Several critics have said that there are “no easy resolutions in a great novel”, and Middlemarch fulfills that requirement perfectly.  A richly woven story, it follows a number of primary, well-defined characters in a nineteenth century Midlands English town, almost all of whom are less than happy with their life’s circumstances. But it is the character of Dorothea, unhappily married to an elderly husband (Casaubon), to whom I was most drawn, because in spite of her frustrating circumstances, she is the most accepting of her situation.  She tries to do right, even as she is thwarted in her pursuit of happiness. Steeped in realistic plot, character and setting, Eliot has a hold on me. I could scarcely put Middlemarch down–every page (and there are 800!) made me want to keep reading.

 

9780072434224_p0_v1_s114x166Their Eyes Were Watching God,  by Zora Neale Hurston

Perhaps because I did not read this novel until I was about fifty, as opposed to reading it for a class assignment years ago, I came to love it by the tenth page.  Written by Hurston after a stormy, tortured love affair, it was published in 1937 and was a commercial success. However, several male members of the Harlem Renaissance criticized it roundly because of her use of African American dialect. I think it is one of the stars of the story–she uses authentic dialect of the times in which she lived, which makes her voice more expressive and unique.  The plot, or story, is told by Janie Crawford, a black woman who by age forty has had three marriages–her last being her most loving but still troubled. When her third husband dies, she comes back to Eatonville, Florida to live (a real community run and populated only by African-Americans).  Over her life, Janie has struggled to find her own voice, and her own happiness, which finally happens.  Hurston created an entire, unique universe in this novel–startlingly different, yet so familiar to me because the characters are so real, human, and unflinching.

 

A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens

My first introduction to Dickens was seeing the movie (in black and white) when in junior high school.  Even then it charmed me, as most of Dickens can charm me 9781593081386_p0_v3_s114x166because of his unique characters.  His books are long and kind of windy, which makes sense since he was often paid by the word.  But he is the author I seem to return to when nothing else appeals. What Dickens does, and does best in this particular novel, is to capture everything a reader could want in a 400 page book and rarely produce a dull moment.  Set in London and Paris prior to and during the French Revolution are the stories of two very different men and the events that cause them to intersect.  Dickens gives us melodrama, memorable characters, smart pacing, emotional depth and great humor and satire.  As I write this, it makes me want to pick it up and start it all over again! Which I am sure I will.

 

The Good Earth, by Pearl Buck

9780743272933_p0_v3_s114x166Here is another example of a classic I did not read until recently.  Yet I remember staring at its cover in my family’s bookshelves for years as I was growing up, and having my mother praise it again and again. It is a more quiet novel, the story of an ordinary peasant family in pre-revolutionary China–farmer Wang Lung and his obedient and hard-working wife O-lan.  The story starts with their wedding day (sometime before WWI), and follows his life’s ups and downs to the end when he finds that the land he worked so hard to acquire and farm during his lifetime is to be sold by his sons, who are the inheritors.  A common enough story, yet more poignant and beautiful because of the culture and times in which it is set.  Buck won the Pulitzer Prize for this in 1932, and it was a runaway best seller for the first two years after being published. Just lovely; told in simple, unadorned language which makes it all the more unforgettable.

 

Book Recommendations–Bookstore Memories

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.

 

9780143113461_p0_v1_s114x166Five Skies, by Ron Carlson

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.

 

Snow Hunters, by Paul Yoon9781476714820_p0_v2_s114x166

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.

 

9780143036661_p0_v1_s114x166March, by Geraldine Brooks

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.

 

City of Thieves, by David Benioff9780452295292_p0_v2_s114x166

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.

 

 

9780375705854_p0_v1_s114x166Plainsong and Eventide, by Kent Haruf

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.

 

 

Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe9780385474542_p0_v1_s114x166

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.