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2021 gives us reason for hope and rejuvenation. Literati staff have come up with books we recommend for readers to take with them into the new year: books we feel can be held dear as we head in to the long winter of snow and ice storms, covid fears and reality, and as a new administration gets to work on making the world around us a better place. These are thoughtful books, funny books, inspiring books, calming read-by-the-fireside books. Some are oldies but goodies, some are brand new, and some will be released in the next few months. Curl up and enjoy as we witness change taking place around us.
It's been many years since author Jane Smiley, whose 1991 Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award bestseller "A Thousand Acres," has been in my book radar. What a Big Treat it was to discover that not only has Jane Smiley published a new novel to share with her fan base, she's written a story with delightfully unique voices who have a timely message to share with the world. From page one and through the last page, I found myself utterly hooked, falling head over heels in love with each and every character who include a racehorse, a raven, two ducks, two rats, and an 8-year old Parisian boy. Smiley rejoices in the animal world and their commanding communication skills, showing her readers that all living things desire freedom, love, and understanding. I highly recommend this absolutely charming read and can't say it loud enough: "Perestroika in Paris" is my end of 2020 all-time favorite novel! —Vicki
Ann Arbor writer Keith Taylor spent several weeks, at two different times in his life, on Isle Royale in northern Michigan as a part of the National Park Service's Artist-in-Residence program, in 1991 and again in 2019. This sweet chapbook, published by Alice Greene & Co., is Taylor's prose and poetry ruminations written during his wilderness immersion and his reemergence into "Twenty-first Century Wild." From the gorgeous front and back cover painting by Kathleen M. Heideman to the lovely and visually alert words on each page, this little gem of a book is a must-have companion to take along on hikes and camping out in the Michigan woods. —Vicki
An intimate, revelatory book exploring the ways we can care for and repair ourselves when life knocks us down. —Carla
In the highly anticipated first of two volumes of his presidential memoirs, Barack Obama tells the story of his improbable odyssey from young man searching for his identity to leader of the free world, describing in personal detail both his political education and the landmark moments of the first term of his historic presidency—a time of dramatic transformation and turmoil. —Hilary
A love letter to an 800-year old oak tree in North Essex, England and a meditation on nature's beauty, curiosities, and healing powers. The prose in this lovely book is poetic in its tender descriptions and history lesson on this great tree. Journal entries detail changes in the air, the birds, and the insects who inhabit, feed on, and nurture the tree. I could write on and on about the majesty of the tree and the joy of reading Canton's discoveries and what he's learned about this colossal tree that would have been a sapling when the Magna Carta was signed. A perfect companion to take on walks in the woods, bird watching or simply embracing the beauty and mysteries of old trees. —Vicki
This book is so soothing. Its short, musical essays radiate with quiet joy. Nezhukumatathil gracefully illuminates some of nature's marvels (including lightning bugs, narwhals, and axolotls), as if gently saying, "look here, look here." Along the journey, she seamlessly weaves in her memories of growing up as a brown girl in the Midwest, her experience navigating motherhood, and the strength of her family's love. If you're in need of a bit of brightness—read this one. —Stephanie
Chang welcomes you in and puts some amazing food in front of you, while a kickas* conversation with someone that you seem to know takes over the evening. By the end, your food might have grown cold, but the taste lingers as you are left in awe of the journey David took to bring his love of food to your table. This reluctant memoir cured my latest book hangover. —Shannon
Alice Quinn, former executive director of the Poetry Society of America and poetry editor at The New Yorker contacted poets around the country to see what they were writing while under the covid-19 quarantine. What she gathered is this collection around grief, strength, anger, worries, politics, wisdom, and humanity as poets expressed their experiences while sheltering in place. This is an important collaboration of American writers sharing their voices during this year of surreal reality. —Vicki
The long-awaited graphic illustration humor book from the creator of the popular blog "Hyperbole and a Half."
In his new must-read, "Humans of New York" author Brandon Stanton shows us the world in this chronicle of his travels to 40 countries. Ultimately this book is about the beauty of being human on a stunning planet full of beauty.
New York Times bestselling nature writer Sy Montgomery's "The Soul of an Octopus" is a tender and heartwarming exploration of the physical and emotional world of octopuses. One of nature's most incredible creations, Montgomery reveals the brilliant minds of octopus, their sense of humor and curiosity, and their mindblowing ability to connect with humans. The book is a moving love story and a fascinating revelation on what octopuses can teach us about the meeting of two different minds. I can't recommend this book highly enough — it is simply a delight to read about Montgomery's visits with Athena, an octopus who resides in Boston's New England Aquarium. —Vicki
An illustrated version of the beloved Robert Frost poem. His gliding nature imagery and glittering stanzas place the reader on horseback, travelling home from a cold day, enticed by the hearths of others. If only Frost could narrate every seemingly mundane moment of our world, bringing them to a visceral reality. —Rose
I have read quite a few of the novels that use Jane Austen and her writings as a plot device. Some were fine and some were definitely not. I was skeptical to try another, particularly by a debut author. My doubts disappeared within the first few pages. The story is set just after WWII in Chawton, the small village where Ms. Austen lived for a few years and where her mother and sister Cassandra are buried. The characters have all been wounded by life (and sometimes family), and the devastation of the war is inescapable. They each find a comfort in Austen’s gentle writing that helps them cope with their tragic loss. I don’t want to give up too much of the plot because I want you to have the joy of that discovery on your own. If you enjoyed "The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society," you will love this charming, wonderful book. —Deb
What initially caught my attention to this wonderful exploration of the lives of birds was the gorgeous cover . . . and of course, the title. How fascinating it is to learn why birds sing, the phenomenon of their ability to fly, what they are able to tell us about seasons, their place in the world, and much much more. This beautifully illustrated book scratches at our itch and curiosity in wanting to understand what it is to be a bird. —Vicki
This gentle novel is perfect when you need a break from harsh reality. It is set in Britain in 1946, just as the country is beginning to claw its way back to some kind of normalcy after WWII. It is a love story, but it isn’t just a story of romantic love. There is love between friends both new and old, filial love, and, most of all, a love for books. It isn’t all sweetness and light, though, as much of the book relates the experience of some of the Guernsey islanders during the German occupation. Some were hilarious, most are decidedly less so. You may admire, and maybe fall in love with these lovely people (well, most of them anyway), as I did. —Deb
It is not subtle nor secret, the sorry state of our planet, our collective/individual senses of wholeness and connection to all - these have long been under assault. But instead of raising alarm bells, scratching at our fears of ruin and collapse, Robin Wall Kimmerer gestures at the love shared between Earth and all upon it. Do we care for the planet out of fear for what will happen when it's utterly wrecked, or do we care for it the way we care for our families, our lovers, our dearest friends? Are our responsibilities to our loved ones a burden, or an honor? Bridging the violent split between Western science and indigenous wisodms, this book inspires awareness, gratitude, and action - vital forces of change, in the way of ultimate good. —Madison
In Just Kids, we are able to peer into Patti Smith's fascinating life. Full of art, love, adventure, and loss, this memoir takes the reader into the alternative scene of New York during the 60's and 70's. Patti's relationship and life experiences with late photographer Robert Mapplethorpe is a central theme to this story. This novel gives a voice to Patti Smith's journey to finding her own voice. Her writing talent is as capturing as her singing voice. —Rose
Naturalist writer Helen MacDonald shares her deep love for birds and nature in this new essay collection of her observations of the world of birds. Each piece is a delicate vignette of minute, sensitive discoveries in the natural world. I so admire Helen MacDonald for her heatfelt appreciation of all the things in nature that pull at my own heart. I nominate her "Queen of Nature Writing." —Vicki
A quiet green notebook with "Provence, 1970" scribbled on the cover was found by M.F.K. Fisher's nephew buried in a storage unit afer her death. From the notebook, letters, and her diaries, he pieces together the story of one winter spent in Provence cooking, musin, and collaborating with Paul and Julia Child, James Beard, Richard Olney, and a number of mid-century chefs. You'll delight in the peculiarities of the personalities, the elaborate menus, and the remembrances of a life well liked. —Hilary
The "pursuit of happiness" does not exist without healthcare for all. From the author of the #1 New York Times bestseller "On Tyranny," comes his impassioned condemnation of America's coronavirus response and an urgent call to rethink health and freedom. —Carla
The little bit of time I spent with the two main characters in this novel left me feeling calm and safe. It’s a quiet read that takes one far far away from the crisis in which we are currently living. Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd is an honorable elderly widower who earns his living in northern Texas giving newspaper readings to live audiences who are eager for news of the world. In the winter of 1870 he agrees to transport a 10-year old white girl captured as a child by an Indian tribe back to her family, undertaking a dangerous 400-mile mission in post-Civil War Texas. Having to learn how to communicate with this girl who does not remember the English language, we witness Captain Kidd's vulnerabilities as he tenderly cares for his young passenger on their long journey. This gentle and comforting story, so elegantly written, explores the limits of trust, responsibility, and honor. It is a hopeful book, the perfect read during this thime of coronavirus self-isolation. —Vicki
Plenty of things make "Dazed and Confused" a good movie: the performances, the period detail, the soundtrack. But what makes "Dazed and Confused" a great movie is its plotlessness, its understanding that just being a teenager is drama enough. According to Melissa Maerz’s wonderful "Alright, Alright, Alright," that teenaged intensity thrived behind the scenes, too, from the cast’s various cliques and hookups to a young director rebelling against the powers-that-be, just as he had in high school. A no-brainer for "Dazed" diehards and film buffs, this tremendous oral history is also perfect for anybody with rich memories of their own complicated youths—which is to say, all of us. —Sam
Steeped in Michigan history, Russell Brakefield uses folk music and sounds of rural Michigan as a guide to create a poetry collection that explores the intensely personal as well as the naturalistic. To me, reading poetry is like listening to a conversation. Here, Brakefield acts as both listener and poet: He describes not just the notes around us, but like any good conversationalist, the silences, the buzzes, the cicadas, the nearby lone trout stalking a mayfly. When Russ worked here at Literati, I was an avid "Russ Reader" -- I devoured his staff picks. Reading his own work in Field Recordings, I'm delighted to listen to his own words, his song ringing in my mind long after finishing. —Mike
An ironic result of our country's uniquely botched and embarrassing response to a global pandemic, is a renewed interest in what other countries are doing. We can't visit them, but in all cases their better outcomes have led many of us to ponder: how have these other countries managed to eclipse the United States, the country that gave the world both the Marshall Plan and Silicon Valley? Zakaria's heavily footnoted chapters address international cooperation, the United States' uniquely quid pro quo governance by congressional bills and tax codes written by lobbyists, the bipolar superpowers of China and the US, and how death may be the great equalizer, but COVID is the great unequalizer. Although I missed an index, this is a book that few could have written, and as good an introduction as one could wish for, to what our government could accomplish in the next decade, if it resumes a place of leadership in the world. —Carla
No book about the wild west compares to Larry McMurtry's epic novel that follows two aging Texas Rangers who embark on one more cow herding adventure. You'll find yourself laughing on one page, crying on the next, and hoping the story never ends. McMurtry is at his best building picturesque characters who pull at your heart and become larger than life. I look forward to a break in my life so I can get utterly lost in this wonderful book all over again. —Vicki
This book not only teaches us about our own backyards, but how to see them. How to interact with them. How to appreciate them. When Aldo Leopold, one of the pioneers of conservation, takes a walk in the woods, it's an adventure with infinite storylines and observations. A fallen tree is not just some broken wood with growth lines, but a one-hundred year-old diary that Leopold dissects and analyzes. Reading this book taught me to look closer, dig deeper, and view my own backyard with an increased awareness and appreciation. A must read for any Midwesterner who takes walks outside. —Mike
I have to admit that as young person, flipping through my parent's New Yorkers just for the one or two cartoons I might possibly comprehend, I often skipped over Roz's intricate, idiosyncratic pieces. Foolish of me, as now I want to tell every human I know to experience this brutal, beautiful, hilarious memoir immediately. We are all likely to experience the "Long Goodbye" with our parents and loved ones, but Chast gives me a peculiar kind of hope about it. Not just a fantastic account of end-of-life care, a tribute, a medium perfected, it is an honest, loving, moving work of art. —John
I was so engrossed in this fine yarn spun by Russo that I resented every moment I had to put this book down in order to live my life. And I loved every moment I spent with his cast of characters who forged strong bonds of friendship in college and who reunite some 40 years later. It had special meaning for me as I read it right before attending my 45th college reunion. His characters are complex and disparate in background and nature, and they possess hearts and souls and intelligence, along with a boatload of insecurities and secrets. They were molded and scarred by their parents (join the club, eh?) and by events beyond their control, and they are haunted by regret. In other words, they are characters with whom we can easily identify. The over-arching theme--the extent to which we truly don't know anyone ("We let people keep their secrets, but then convince ourselves we know them anyway.") is one that always resonates with me. Russo is a master storyteller and a most astute observer of human nature. HIs status as one of my very favorite contemporary writers is hereby further solidified. —Jeanne
We have all heard 'Less is more' In this new book, Hamblin takes this belief on in ways you wouldn't expect. He opens the book by telling the reader he stopped showering, which I admit, almost made me put the book down. I'm glad I heard him out and I think you will too. The journey he takes to discover what our skin really needs will surprise you and save you tons of money in the long run. I loved this book. —Shannon
It's hard to believe this is a debut novel for writer Eileen Garvin, who has been compared to author Eleanor Oliphant. A lovingly told story rich with characters I would enjoy having as my next-door neighbors or best friend's kids, the story takes place on a bee farm in rural Oregon. Having the utmost respect for bees and beekeepers, it was an extra special treat to be taken to that world. The protagonist's father's destructive revilement of his son is utterly horrific but that's what makes the story the story. It is heartbreaking, yet this tender novel redeems itself in a heartwarming way. Be sure to watch for it's release in Spring of 2021. —Vicki
I'm obsessed with this book. Enchanting and deliciously grand, Morgenstern has created a vivid, magical world full of characters painted in intimate detail. I cannot stress this enough: it's truly stunning! (Insert many a heart-eyes emoji here.) Morgenstern has shared that "The Night Circus" was influenced by Punchdrunk, an immersive theatre company that lets audience members wander through a production—and it shows. I was thoroughly submerged in the dreamy, sparkling world, and it felt like such a loss to leave it. Love magic? Love mystery? Love fairy tales? This is your book. —Stephanie
Though set in Naples, I find this book (and series) reminiscent of Doris Lessing, struggling with growing up in the ragged environment, the musing of girlhood friendships, struggling to be individual, constantly threatened by men, a retelling of political upheavals of the 20th century, and the saving redemption of art. —Kaitlyn
A memoir told in essays, Here For It is a hilarious and heartfelt reflection on Thomas's life as a black, gay, and Christian man living in America. It's the most human commentary on pop culture and politics that I've read. Here For It reads like a mix between Bad Feminist and Hannah Gadsby's Netflix comedy special, but it has a voice that's entirely its own. This book made me laugh, it made me cry, it made me cry from laughing. Everyone needs to read this treasure of a book! —Julia
I've never given an ounce of thought to ancient Egyptian history. After devouring this complicated love story built around an archeological dig site, I'm totally in! Incredibly fascinating behind-the-scenes who/what/where/how data surrounding Ancient Egypt and digs are detailed thanks to Jodi Picoult's thorough research on everything Ancient Egypt: death and dying, mummies, grammar and prose and hieroglyphics, Egyptian society, the gods and goddesses of Ancient Egypt, plus physics and so much more. First and foremost "The Book of Two Ways" is an entangled love story complete with intrigue around the fully-developed cast of characters. The captivating Egypt I lesson is an added treat. I tend to avoid mushy-gushy love stories, but this is one I can say "read on and enjoy the ride!" —Vicki
David Sedaris’s best stories and essays, spanning his remarkable caree. Sedaris selected this collection and has and included one new essay. A perfect read for whiling away the grey winter hours.
A delightful collection of more than 130 cartoons that are silly, satirical, surreal, and oddly moving, collaborated by Steve Martin and New York cartoonist Harry Bliss.