I encountered a passage from this book recently that was so profoundly exquisite, I knew I had to read the novel. The passage: "Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and living alone won't either, for solitude will also break you with its yearning. You have to love. You have to feel. It is the reason you are here on earth. You are here to risk your heart. You are here to be swallowed up. And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the applies falling all around you in heaps, waisting their sweetness. Tell Yourself that you tasted as many as you could." If that speaks to you, I think you will treasure this novel. The plot consists of stories from both the maker of the titular Ojibwe drum and the people whose lives have been affected by it over the span of several generations. These tales capture the harsh reality of daily existence for Indians, and most focus on mothers who have failed their children in some significant way. I'm not a religious person, but I am captivated by the spirituality of native Americans, their deep connection to nature, their respect for the dead, and their belief in the pull that the dead have on the people they leave behind. Since reading this book twice, I've had many dreams about and one-sided conversations with long-dead loved ones. I've never had such a visceral reaction to a novel, and I believe that these dreams and conversations are a way for me to make peace with mistakes others have made that impacted me and with my own mistakes that hurt those I love.
After I recently saw the movie Belfast, I thought often of Cal, a 1984 film also about the Irish “troubles.” Cal was a movie I loved so much that I bought the novel it was adapted from, but hadn’t read it until inspired to do so now. The novel, like the film is powerfully humane and tragic—all the more so because MacLaverty doesn’t take sides, but rather presents us with one heartbreaking love story, Shakespearian in its moral dimensions. Choices are made, with deadly consequences, and it becomes almost impossible for Cal to see a future in which his sin is not “clawing at him.” It struck me that this novel has special relevance in light of the centuries-old conflict that is now impacting millions of lives in Eastern Europe.
If you read and love this book, watch for Cal to reappear some day on Criterion’s streaming service. It’s one of my very favorite movies (the soundtrack by Mark Knopfler is an added bonus).
I was utterly captivated, and impressed by this novel which lovingly and vividly captures life during a few wintery months in a small Minnesotan town on Lake Superior, just a short way up Highway 61 from Duluth. The town is populated by a host of wonderfully quirky characters who like the town have seen better, happier days, or so they think. Virgil Wander (of his name, he says “for a man named Wander, I’d spent a long time in one place”), the proprietor of the town’s movie theater, which becomes a kind of beacon for the townspeople, is the narrator of the book. As the novel begins, he is beginning a recovery from an unplanned dip in Lake Superior he took with his car, and among other things is slowly regaining his ability to find words, particularly adjectives—so as his recovery and the novel progress, his descriptions become increasingly more wondrously and beautifully evocative—just one of the many things I adore about this novel. In one fell swoop Enger is on my short list of contemporary writers I will follow anywhere he takes readers.
This absorbing story of the lives of Louise Little (1897-1994), an activist herself and mother of Malcolm X (and 7 other children, widowed in her mid-30's when her husband was believed to have been pushed under a street car by a gang of white supremacists), Alberta King (1903-1974), mother of MLK, Jr. (and 2 other children; she was killed by a white supremacist in 1974 as she played the organ at an Ebenezer Baptist Church Sunday service), and Berdis Baldwin (1903-1999), mother of James Baldwin (and 8 other children, widowed at age 41), spans most of the 20th century and focuses on the hardships and rampant racism faced by Black Americans. In response to unspeakable challenges that would devastate most people, these women, each with a strong sense of self-worth and selfless love, fought to educate their children, and taught them to believe in their abilities, their dignity, their worth, no matter how they were treated by others. Their sons were not born destined to fight for the rights of Black Americans, but were products in large part of what their mothers taught them through their words and their actions. Taking a deep dive into Black American history can only help us to form that more perfect union in which we truly believe that all men are created equal. And we can honor and learn from these three women and their families by reading their stories, lovingly told in this book.
This is the best novel I’ve read in a long time. I foresee rereading it from time to time for its wisdom, for companionship as I age, gleaning something new from it each time. I found the narrative style downright exciting—the short sentences, sentence fragments communicate ever so much to the reader. The characters are nameless: he, a son/husband/father; she, a daughter/mother/wife; and their son, the boy—everyman, woman, child. The challenges of marriage, but particularly parenthood, (which here include an Abortion and raising an Autistic child), and the resulting lifelong shame and guilt, are all presented with uncompromising honesty, but the book is also generously peppered with wonderfully dark humor (“A bad laugh even better than a good cry”). This is a novel that will resonate for parents, but also speaks volumes to the child in all of us, as it also captures those moments in which parents find themselves “breathless with love” for their child. I am in awe of this truly remarkable book.
I’ve read Derek Miller’s four novels and have loved them all; he is truly one of my favorite writers. This novel, a prequel to Miller’s remarkable debut novel, Norwegian by Night is set just prior to and during WWII, and provides the backstory of Sheldon Horowitz, the intriguing, endearing aged hero of Miller’s first book. Here, Sheldon, the son of Jewish immigrants to the U.S. (the undercurrent of discrimination runs throughout this book), at age 12, loses his mother in a movie theater fire, and his father in a car crash. Sheldon’s obsession with avenging his father’s death which he’s convinced wasn’t an accident is the focus of one of the best sections of the book. We then witness a gradual transformation from one focused on the past and revenge to one focused on the future and love—and can begin to see the man he is in that first novel. Miller’s characters are memorable (Sheldon is magnificent), the plots intricate and exciting, and the prose rich with detail that can be humorous, but also heartbreaking. I encourage you to read all of Miller’s novels.
This is a thrilling mystery with historical context that sheds light on a shameful chapter of U.S. history often glossed over in history classes—the treatment of Japanese-Americans by the U.S. government during WW II. This is the powerful story of the Ito family (the immigrant parents and their two American-born daughters, Rose, and her younger sister, Aki) who are relocated from their home in California by the government after the attack on Pearl Harbor, to Manzanar, one of the Japanese-American internment camps, where they spend several humiliating years. In 1944 the family is released and relocated to Chicago, where Rose is killed by a subway train. Her death is ruled a suicide by the police, but a skeptical Aki relentlessly pursues the truth. It is this Chicago section where this book really dazzles as a page-turning mystery, but also with arresting depictions of what life was like in the Japanese-American community, and, as a bonus, becomes also the tender coming-of-age story of Aki, who has always lived in her sister’s shadow. This is a powerful book on all three fronts.
This early novel from Maxwell further solidifies his position as one of my favorite writers. Set in a small Illinois town during the 1918-20 flu epidemic, the action centers on the Morison family (the parents and their 2 sons). Maxwell is a gentlemanly, reliable narrator who cares deeply about his characters, and paints many pictures with carefully chosen words that reveal nuances of character and establish the complex family dynamics. Like the swallows in the Yeats poem from which this book is named, the males in the family “seemed to whirl upon a compass point”—that being the wife and mother who dies from the flu just days after giving birth to a daughter. Reading this now during our pandemic is especially poignant, for Maxwell suggests in a most loving and heart-wrenching manner the ways their lives would be changed forever (his own mother died of the flu when he was 10). The NYT Book Review recently wisely chose Maxwell to be the subject for their “Writers Who Show Us Who We Are” series. Maxwell is a treasure.
We have been blessed with another Prose novel to love and cherish. The narrative is brilliantly inventive and clever, intelligent as ever, and ever so funny. This is the post-college coming of age story of Simon Putnam (his name a mash-up of 2 famous publishers), whose first job at a small highbrow NYC publishing house gives Prose the opportunity to have some fun at the expense of publishers, and she doesn’t disappoint. Simon’s first major assignment is to edit a trashy novel (excerpts are included—more fun!), and in so doing, struggles with the conflict between professional ambition and matters of conscience, between his background and what he wants for his future. The ending is perfection. I was unexpectedly moved to tears by the sheer beauty of the writing and the inventive, ingenious way the ending circles back to the beginning. Like the Coney Island Cyclone, which figures prominently in the story, reading this novel by a master writer at her best, was a wild, fun, exhilarating ride.
This is a quick, but richly rewarding read, inhabited by characters that are carefully imagined in an exquisitely captured period setting (England in the 1940s and 50s with a jump ahead to 2009). The pivotal action takes place during the summer of ‘59 in a British resort town, where three intertwined main characters (a magician, Ronnie, whose intriguing back story we learn the most about, his female assistant, and the song and dance emcee) are performers in a nightly stage show. What we learn of these characters and their interactions (Swift can convey so much about a character in just a sentence or two) makes this the perfect vehicle through which he highlights his themes of the roles that chance and desire play in our lives, the secrets we keep from each other, as well as the way we look back on the past through the often-distorted lens of memory in order to cope with the present. I couldn’t help but think there’s a certain magic to Swift’s masterful writing.
Central to the cast of intriguing, complex characters that populate this novel are Spence, a celebrated Shakespearean scholar at Columbia, and his younger wife and former student, Pru. We are privy to what they both sacrifice and gain from sharing a life together through the years. And then fate delivers them a devastating blow that changes everything when Spence is diagnosed with early on-set Alzheimer’s. The unimaginable heartbreak for Pru of coping with the loss of what they had, coupled with the demands of becoming a caregiver is lovingly and expertly captured by Henkin. The story is heart-wrenching, but also inspiring; there are many examples of flawed characters endeavoring to become better—better friends, better partners, better siblings and better parents. It is ultimately about the resilience of the human spirit, about those times when the most we can expect from our day and ourselves might simply be the victory of going into a Chinese restaurant to order takeout. Somedays that little step towards healing and moving on can be enough.
The world just might be a better place if readers embraced this new edition of a prophetic and haunting novel written by Boschwitz in 1938 at age 23 which portrays in chilling fashion the persecution of Jews in Germany prior to WW II and foresees the even greater horrors to come. The titular passenger is Otto Silbermann, a successful Jewish businessman who flees Berlin to escape arrest by embarking on a train odyssey across Germany. The account of his journey from city to city is suspenseful and infused with dark humor and a sense of existential dread and impending doom. Otto gradually experiences the shattering of everything he took for granted, including his very identity, and his faith and trust in humanity. This is a remarkable cautionary tale from a wise and talented young writer who, on his own journey to escape persecution, was killed at age 27 when a German submarine torpedoed the ship on which he was a passenger.
I am utterly in awe of this masterful novel. In it, an audience that has gathered at the elegant home of the Vice President of a South American Country for a private concert by a world-renowned diva is taken hostage when a group of terrorists storm the house. What follows is almost magical, as Patchett takes her characters (both captives and captors) through a beautiful and credible transformation as they ever so gradually overcome national, racial, economic, and educational differences to find common ground, to find the humanity in each other. It is primarily the universal language of beauty, of music that sets the stage for this evolution. Just as the characters found hope in a world “in which someone could have written such music,” so can a reader find inspiration in a world in which a writer has written such an extraordinary tale as this. If your faith in humanity is waning of late, this novel may be the perfect antidote.
Historian Applebaum focuses on recent post-Cold War trends toward autocracy, not just in the U.S., but particularly in European countries, to make her case about the always fragile nature of democracy. This book, along with the events of 1/6/21, are the most powerful wake-up calls I’ve had regarding the danger our republic is in. We must learn from history, lest we repeat it, to paraphrase Churchill, who paraphrased George Santayana. Applebaum concludes, “The precariousness of the current moment seems frightening, and yet this uncertainly has always been there. … We always knew, or should have known, that history could once again reach into our private lives and rearrange them. We always knew, or should have known, that alternative visions of our nations would try to draw us in.” We are at such a time, still, during which millions of people hold dramatically different visions of who we are, how we should live, and with whom as our neighbors. Take nothing for granted. Democracy is hard work.
I’ll always remember where and when I read this novel—alone, at a friend’s lovely house on Lake Michigan in late September during the pandemic. This was the quietest vacation I’ve ever had, with just the sound of the waves on the shore and the wind in the trees and this book often in my hands. I found that I needed this peace in order to truly absorb and reflect on this insightful novel. I cared about and learned from this richly painted cast of characters like I care about and learn from my dearest friends This is a mature, complex story about a marriage, about how hard it can be to make a go of it even when the foundation is love, about how many years and recalled memories it can take to arrive at forgiveness, about how friends and family can alternately annoy us and then lift us up and help us to see our lives more clearly. My life was enriched by this novel as I continue to try to make sense of my marriage, my choices, my life.
Glaude (whose eloquence, wisdom and perspective as an MSNBC contributor I admire) is just the person to do justice to an analysis of the writings of Baldwin, one of the greatest writers and most influential thinkers of the 20thcentury. Glaude suggests that we are in one of the “after” times, when the Black Lives Matter movement has been challenged by the Trump presidency. He analizes Baldwin’s writings about similar movements during his lifetime (the non-violent approach of MLK, the Black Power movement of the late 60’s & 70’s) which culminated in the dark, disappointing after time of Reagan’s presidency, to suggest how Baldwin would view the Trump years and how he would want us to move forward. Though Baldwin despaired over constant setbacks and his thinking about the movement evolved with the times, one thing remained constant in his writings—hope—hope that though we would never have a perfect union, we could have a more just one if only Americans could rid themselves of the belief that white people matter more. To do this they must first face and accept as truth the lies that they’ve lived with. Reading this powerful, enlightening and beautifully written book is a step to take in that direction.
I was drawn to this book by its James Baldwin epigraph, and then Ide took over and his vivid and clever, sometimes noirish, prose knocked my socks off. His characters, from the same South Central LA area that Ide grew up in, are marvelously complex and intriguing, with his greatest creation being his street-smart and ingenious crime solver detective, IQ. Here, IQ is hired by a notorious arms dealer to solve a murder case. The plot is suspenseful, the denouement surprising with several dizzyingly page-turning episodes that kept me reading long into the night. But solving the crime was almost incidental to my enjoyment of the book. The thrill came from being immersed in Ide's prose, IQ’s world, to experience the day to day struggles of his characters to know themselves, to be better versions of themselves. As much as IQ is trying to solve a crime, he’s trying to solve life’s mysteries, to get at truths. I was looking for a distraction during the pandemic and found so much more. I am happily hooked.
You don’t have to be a baseball devotee to enjoy and learn from this engaging debut novel set in Scottsdale, Arizona, where spring training for baseball’s minor Cactus League LA Lions takes place, for it is the action off the field that is the heart of this book. Each of nine chapters focuses on a different character, some of them from the Lions and others permanent residents of Scottsdale. Their stories are artfully woven together to form a novel that will tug at your heartstrings. The common thread throughout is the team’s star outfielder, Jason Goodyear, who is having a most particularly bad year. In a perfect ending, Jason, after performing a truly heroic act, tells an injured child to “hang on,” and the sportswriter whose musings are interspersed throughout the book, observes, “…goddamn it if his words couldn’t have been meant for himself, if they couldn't have been meant for us all.” Indeed, hang on everyone; this (whatever it is for each of us), too, shall pass.
Brooks brilliantly applies her prodigious imagination, the fruits of her exhaustive research on the Civil War, and her masterful writing skills to grace readers with this backstory of the March family father, who in Little Women is off serving the Union in the Civil War. Her depictions of the brutal horrors of slavery, of war, and of the harsh reality that greeted newly freed slaves are gut-wrenching. More than once, March faces life and death situations requiring split-second decisions, the guilt from which will haunt and torment him every day of his life. Brooks finds the darkness, the secrets, and the guilt that lies beneath the surface of the Alcott characters. In her hands, the characters of March and Marmee are enriched and become more human and relatable—somehow without detracting from the joy that comes from reading Alcott’s classic. This novel so powerfully captured this complicated watershed period of our history, it left me hungering to know more. To my way of thinking, March will be considered a classic of the twenty-first century.
This is a beautiful, excruciatingly honest, and brave memoir from a gifted writer of fiction. It's often too raw and shocking for comfort, but therein lies its power. The author's life changes forever when his father, the renowned writer Andre Dubus, leaves his mother for a young student. Thereafter they live in borderline poverty, and Andre evolves into an angry young man—angry with his father and with school bullies who humiliate and abuse the defenseless. As a teenager, he embraces violence as a means to right the wrongs of bullies in a superhero sort of way (in happier times he used to watch Batman episodes with his siblings and neighbor Kurt Vonnegut when his father and Vonnegut were involved with the Iowa Writers Workshop). For many years thereafter he tries in a slow, harrowing and riveting struggle to break free of this violent proclivity. Likewise, it takes him decades to come to terms with his feelings for his father, and to ultimately realize that anger at, and forgiveness and love for someone can coexist in one’s heart. His journey to becoming a great writer, a man of understanding who embraces empathy and forgiveness changed me in some way forever (maybe by seeing the possibility that no matter what baggage we are burdened with in our lives, it's never too late for redemption), and I can think of no higher praise for a book.
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.
This novel is the Catch-22 of this century (I intend this to be the highest of praise)—the quintessential war novel that captures with humor, irony, and pathos the absurdity and the horror of war. And incredibly Fountain does this not by setting his novel on the battlefields of Iraq, but in Texas, where Billy and the other survivors of a brutal Iraqi raid are making their final appearance of a publicity tour orchestrated by the Army, at the 2004 Dallas Cowboys Thanksgiving Day NFL game. This is an absolutely brilliant setting in which to contrast these traumatized soldiers who signed up for duty because it seemed to be the best option and whose return to active duty in Iraq is imminent, with the fur and cashmere clad privileged folk who populate the suites at the NFL game. Fountain runs with it and dark hilarity ensues. He is at his best capturing hypocrisy and the absurd, but also the bond these soldiers share. And with extraordinary prescience he brings the very issues that increasingly divide our country today in sharp focus in this amazing, unforgettable book.
The cover of this novel captures perfectly the freewheeling, mischievous. misbehaving spirit of Oksana as well as her strong ties to Russia. She narrates this coming of age story, which begins at age 7 with her ever so colorful family’s immigration from Ukraine to the U.S., and ends 30 years later with a visit to her motherland. Throughout, she confronts the challenges of life and the struggle to assimilate in a foreign country, with humor, passion, and a discerning eye for the absurd. This is Oksana's journey towards acceptance of her faults and the importance of her family and her heritage. The chapters become more and more revelatory of her inner life (including quite literally the child she is carrying as the book ends)—much like the opening of Russian nesting dolls reveals ever smaller, but often more intricate figures the farther you go, traditionally culminating with the figure of a baby. Oksana is an absolutely spectacular creation—flawed, unpredictable, often hilarious and irreverent, and seemingly fearless, though not always where true intimacy is concerned. She catapulted to life off the first page and captured my heart and my imagination.. She is, I hope and suspect, unforgetable.
This resplendently beautiful, passionate, and poetic love story between the pregnant teen-aged Tish and the self-assured young sculptor Fonny, who is in jail awaiting his trial for a crime he didn’t commit, is the tragic tale of the barriers our society erects for any black person who dares to try to live a life of dignity. If our streets could tell stories, there would be countless such stories of injustice; this one has in Baldwin a rare voice that is at once urgent, angry, hopeful and loving, and his story is every bit as powerful as the best of Shakespearean tragedies. Fonny is Baldwin’s personification of the black man who “wasn’t anybody’s nigger” in a country where it’s a crime not to be somebody’s nigger. Baldwin believed that the future of our country depends on white people figuring out why they have the need to invent the nigger—a question skillfully woven into this story, lovingly written by someone who spoke truth to power. Ours would be a better country if this were required reading.
I am so grateful for this beautiful, heart-breaking, truthful novel. In chapters alternating between Chicago in the late 1980s and present-day Paris, Makkai tells the story of those whose lives were irreversibly affected by the early days of the AIDS epidemic. I felt as though my brother’s story, for one, was being vividly brought to life; he lived in this Chicago neighborhood, frequented the same restaurants, gay bars, movie theaters, and in the end, died in the same AIDS ward as do some of the characters. I didn’t expect, however, to find elements of my story in the present-day chapters. This book gave me a new awareness of the degree to which my brother’s fate has impacted my life—the subtle ways a traumatic experience can scar one for life, so that one is always living in its aftermath, and unavoidably shortchanging the present. The very best of novels are imaginative and immersive, but also inspire just such self-examination. And the piece de resistance is that rare perfect ending.
This short story collection is nearly 30 years old, but its artistry and appeal are timeless. The descriptions are succinct and rich with poetic detail (“His voice was slow with prairie, thick with Great Lakes.”). And Moore can be wry and funny as all get-out (“Illinois,” says one character, “it makes me sarcastic just to be here.”). She is a writer with an uncanny talent for capturing the universal thread that unites us no matter how different our personalities or circumstances are as readers, from the characters whose stories we read. I experienced a spark of recognition in all eight stories that connected me with the characters, even if it was just one line that stopped me in my tracks. These stories are truly like life, snapshots of lives brought to us by one of the best short story writers around.
This luminous debut novel takes us inside the complex lives and loves of the owners and employees of an established Chinese restaurant in suburban DC. It is rich with detail, humor (“Vegetarian? Isn’t life hard enough?”), and, most importantly, wisdom about human nature—how we can spend a lifetime trying to “crawl out from under the shadow of our family;” how our entangled relationships can sap our energy and bring equal parts joy and misery to our lives. It is about appearances vs. reality—how impossible it is to truly know someone. It is about how those who seem to have “the instruction manual to life” often don’t have a clue. This enthralling, imperfect cast of characters could stun me with their capacity for cruelty to each other, but then could melt away my harsh judgments as they attempt to turn their lives around and forgive. Lillian’s talent for storytelling, her wisdom, and her imagination captivated me from the first rich, bustling restaurant scene to the last somber, reflective page. Brava, Lillian!
With this, his third novel, Miller completes a literary hat trick. He’s one of my favorite contemporary writers, consistently creating novels that are at once entertaining and provocative. Here, Sigrid, the Norwegian detective who worked the case in Miller’s first book, Norwegian by Night (you don’t need to read it first, but read it you should), travels to the U.S. to locate her missing brother. The book is graced with witty, intelligent characters who seem to live and breathe on the pages (such as the New York sheriff who is also a graduate of a Jesuit divinity school), with humorous and insightful observations about contemporary life (here, drawing contrasts between American and Norwegian life), and a plot line that tackles the issue of race (here, through fatal shootings in both in Norway and in upstate New York of non-Caucasians, by white cops). In the end, my love for this book is about sentences such as this: “The heart is one of the few places where facts and truth may be separable.”
After surviving the hideous year that was 2017, I turned to this book because I just wanted to laugh. And laugh I did over the many dry, self-deprecating humorous musings as Hodgman confronts grown-up issues like the discovery that the giant white metal Tylenol sculpture in his vacation home yard is actually a propane tank which doesn’t fill itself; you must call the “gas daddy” for that. I should have known from his work on the Daily Show that the book would be more than just funny. It turns out that what I needed and really wanted was a book that would also inspire reflection on human nature and the sad state of our country, and this book delivered. There are many moments of guilt-ridden self-discovery. Is his whole life being spent in vacationland? After all, what is he but a privileged white male who is fortunate to have enough money to at least buy “the conditions for happiness”? With his penchant for droll self-reflective humor and insight and for spot-on social observations, Hodgman has grown even further in my estimation with this book.
In this wholly enchanting first novel by Polish poet, Wioletta Greg, life in a politically tumultuous and menacing 1980’s rural Poland is seen through the eyes of the precocious Wiola in chapters progressing from her very earliest memory fragments through to those of her teenage years. The sheer beauty, freshness, and power of Greg’s language to capture a child’s wonder, confusion, and curiosity at the world, and to summon nearly palpable childhood memories in the reader, is unparalleled. With a mesmerizing and sensuous poetic touch, Greg consistently uses the most unexpected of details to suggest a time, a place, a feeling, a mood: “I lay down beside her and watched the sky spin candyfloss out of the clouds.” This dazzling novel is a spell-binding testimony to the belief that the child in us is universal, ever-present, and can be stirred to life by a consummate writer. It is a rare sparkling gem of a book.
This is must-reading for those who care about baseball; it will help you see why you’re right that baseball matters, all the while knowing that it kind of doesn’t. Philosophy professor Kingwell softens his philosophical, literary and historical examination of the game with a most engaging personal narrative. He views baseball as theatre (a game of stillness, with sudden explosive action), as poetry (what is it but “a quest to leave home and return home safely, against all odds”), and as a pasttime rife with failure (errors, missed opportunities galore, batters failing to get hits far more often than they succeed). He makes the case that if we learn best from failure, baseball as “a game which embraces failure as its beating heart, offers significance beyond its apparent pointlessness.” Most games are not memorable, but that’s what makes those rare games, those “games for the ages” so exhilarating, just as in life, our failures make our successes sweeter. As Samuel Beckett wrote, “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” A lesson for baseball and for life.
I worked with Jeff, the author, at Borders, and he is a friend. Knowing him, I’m in no way surprised that he's written a novel filled with wisdom, sensitivity, pathos, hope, humor, and irony.* What I couldn’t have known was that his debut would be so well-crafted with plot twists and turns I never saw coming, and vivid, colorful characters who absolutely come alive off the pages until you’d swear they were living and breathing in the room with you as you read. This is the story of Conor McLeish, a middle-aged gay novelist with scars from a traumatic childhood that have never healed. With decidedly mixed results, he is desperately trying to avoid sabotaging that which is good in his life, and to find that solid ground that we all seek. His colorful, dysfunctional family serves throughout as both a weight around his ankles, pulling him down, and an anchor to help ground him. Conor’s story is universal, and yet uniquely his. I cared deeply about and empathized with, each and every central character Jeff created, and I laughed, I cried, I laughed some more, and truly rooted for Conor every step of the way. I was a weeping mess when I turned the last page. This is a dazzling debut.
*I feel compelled to point out the irony of the title and the cover photo; also, consider that the story is set in Florida, which may one day be under water, and that the author lives in California, perhaps on a fault-line.
The unlikely heroes, heart, charm, humor, intelligence, and gripping tension of both Miller's first novel, Norwegian by Night, and now this stunningly powerful and insanely funny second novel, make Miller one of my favorite comtemporary novelists. Miller wrote his dissertation on the Iraq civil war of 1991 and writes in the afterword to this book that he knew that he "needed to return to the subject matter through fiction, where a greater range of truths could be explored." This novel, set mostly in Iraq, but international in scope, is the result. All of the characters are captivating, but I have to single out the American soldier, Arwood Hobbs, as one of the most original, troubled, enigmatic, and hilarious characters ever. I will never forget him. And the man who created Arwood also wrote lines such as this: "There was no topsoil. There was surely a proper reason for this, but Benton imagined that too many feet had walked here for too long in search of too much." This book which addresses a host of themes with insight, humor, and compassion, will be with me literally and figuratively always.
I'm a New Yorker groupie and a grammar nerd, and so I was in heaven reading this book by Mary Norris, long-time employee of the New Yorker Copy Department. She cares about grammar without being a purist ("A hyphen is not a moral issue.") and the book is charming and laugh-out-loud funny. You'll learn something about grammar, but also about dictionaries and how to properly sharpen a pencil. You'll also be treated to stories of life at the New Yorker (she had actual convervsations with Pauline Kael in the 18th floor bathroom!) and of working at a cheese factory prior to that. I had the pleaseure of meeting Ms. Norris at a recent book conference. She signed my copy of her book with her pencil of choice (a Blackwing 602) and my parting words to her were: "You're lilving my dream." She responded, "I'm living my dream." And that joie de vivre shines through brightly in her first book.
Francine Prose's novel is a tour-de-force of character and point-of-view with a most fascinating setting--Paris from the carefree, bohemian early 1930's to the sobering Nazi occupation. She tells the story masterfully and most originally by assuming the voices of a colorful cast of characters writing via letters, articles, memoirs, as well as chapters from a present-day biography of one of the characters. These self-serving testimonies are often contradictory, and I was struck with how elusive historical fact is, as it depends on the memory, motives and perceptions of witnesses and researchers. I wonder is this not why we read intelligent, entertaining, thought-provoking novels with a sense of place, history and atmosphere that is palpable, such as this one -- to better understand human history and ourselves?
This early novel from William Maxwell, longtime fiction editor extraordinaire of the New Yorker, is a quiet gem with perhaps the saddest, wisest, most profoundly perfect ending I’ve ever encountered.
The novel takes place in 1912 in a sleepy, small (really small) Illinois town—a setting Maxwell knew intimately. At the center of the novel are Austin King and his family, but the town is also populated with a cast of colorful minor characters who provide humor, charm and conflict, and for whom Maxwell clearly has a deep fondness, foibles and all. Austin tries always to act honorably, to do no harm, but when a visit from his Mississippi foster family brings conflict to the surface, Austin realizes how subjective doing the “right thing” is, and that even the best of intentions can have devastating consequences.
The marvel of Maxwell’s novel is in his quiet empathetic prose, his fascination with the seemingly harmless actions, words and gestures that can produce hurt and pain in others. I simply don’t know how Maxwell manages to capture the complexity of human interactions, particularly of marriage, with such graceful simplicity and power. Maxwell is my sad, compassionate and totally wise god of fiction.
I cherish this book; it holds a special place in my heart and I'm not sure I can explain or even know why. It is the story of a friendship. Stegner captures like no one else both the joy of a new once-in-a-lifetime friendship that develops between two couples (each character so richly drawn) who meet in their 20's as the men are beginning their university teaching careers, and the reality of how the friendship evolves as circumstances change and flaws surface. I love the book's honesty, wisdom and simplicity, and appreciate that there is nothing simple about writing a novel that flows so effortlessly and beautifully. Just as friendships change over time, this is a book that should be savored again and again as one matures. It's one of my all-time favorite novels.
Millard writes of a most fascinating chapter of U.S. history and in so doing, has written a book that will appeal not only to the history buff, but also to the political junkie, the scientist and just anyone who appreciates a riveting tale well-told.
The narrative artfully weaves the story of James Garfield’s reluctant rise to the presidency (he wasn’t even a candidate prior to being selected as the nominee at the dead-locked Republican Convention of 1880); the assassin Charles Guiteau’s life of delusion culminating in the belief that it was God’s mission for him to save the country from Garfield; the doctors, who in trying to save Garfield’s life, ultimately killed him with archaic medical practices; and Alexander Graham Bell’s race to perfect an invention that he believed would save Garfield.
I came away from this book with great admiration for Garfield as a politician, educator, orator, man of letters, and, most importantly, a man of honor, as well as a desire to learn more about this period. I simply can’t imagine anyone not being captivated by this story so expertly told by Millard.
This is arguably the best book of many outstanding books I read in 2013. In each of the four stories that comprise this book, the characters struggle with joy and disappointment, temptation, expectation, guilt and shame; they want to believe in love but are just as eager to sabotage it and escape its complications to live a more predictable and controlled solitary life.
Dubus is a consummate master of prose and I recorded pages of passages that are short gems which speak volumes about the characters.
What I liked best though, is that the characters who are only mentioned in passing in one story become the central focus of another story. They seem marginal and uninteresting until Dubus tells their tales. The lesson that everyone has a story to tell, that everyone deals with love and loss and guilt and shame, that the world is a better place if we each remember that and treat one another with kindness and respect, is one we all should embrace. This book reinforced that lesson as few other books have done for me; I loved this book.
I loved this novel about three male generations of a Chicago Jewish family and the women they loved, for the strikingly original manner in which the tale is told and for the emotional response it evoked in me. Through the memories presented in its many short chapters, a portrait of a family whose members struggle to connect emerges. These vignettes, presented in a chronologically meandering order, are about the odd details, the strange moments in life whose emotional punch we recall more powerfully than the big events of our lives. Reading this novel triggered my own compelling memories— the image of looking out of an attic window and being surprised that the view is no different, took me back to my fascination with the attic window in my parents’ house. A simple detail, but powerful and poignant, a longing for something I can’t quite put my finger on. This book will stay with me.
This debut novel is a Scandinavian thriller with a solid plot, a page-turning ending, strong characters, heart, humor and intelligence. The plot involves the desperate flight taken by Sheldon, an edlerly Jewish-American, and Paul, a young Serbian boy, after they witness the brutal murder of Paul's mother. The novel has many serious themes: aging, dementia, war, the Holocaust, loss, family love, regret, guilt and more guilt – always with the guilt, and just maybe redemption. Amazingly, these themes don't overwhelm the plot, and in fact the book is laugh-out-loud funny in spots. The heart and soul of the novel is quite simply the poignant relationship that develops between Sheldon and Paul; they don’t speak the same language, but wow, do they communicate and connect. I loved this book.
I recently re-read this novel and fell in love with it all over again. It's a charming, thoughtful, upbeat and offbeat story of four people fallinig in love in 1970's NYC. Colwin makes happiness seem possible and plausible, but knows that sustaining happiness over time requires true effort--so there is angst and substance here. The characters are witty and smart, and you are treated to snappy, intelligent and hilarious dialogue, odd-ball secondary characters, and to one of my favorite characters of all time--Misty Berkowitz. She's full of cynicism, sass, intelligence and insecurities, and she's always setting roadblocks to happiness for fear it won't last. I get that, and I love her and want her to be my best friend. Colwin helps me to remain ever hopeful and happy a lot of the time.
Wnen I read this novel some years ago, it instantly became one of my favorite books ever, and Malone one of my favorite writers. It is many things at once: an intricately plotted and suspenseful buddy-cop mystery; a romance with one of the most tender, realistic, and humorous renderings of two people falling in love I’ve ever come across; a thoughtful, literary novel that captures the feel of its small town Southern setting with beautiful prose and imagery, and its themes of class and race with honesty and nuance; and a playful screwball comedy of a book with its wacky humor and clever dialogue. Malone populates his town with colorful, complicated characters who breathe life and humor and conflict into the mix, and make this book smart and engaging. Reading this book was an absolutely exhilarating experience.
“The natural world is the refuge of the spirit…richer even than human imagination.” Edward O. Wilson
From that first carefully chosen epigraph on, this book is a little bit of perfection in an imperfect world. Through powerful, wise and tranquilly beautiful lyrical writing, Bailey recounts her tortuous bed-ridden months of recovery from the effects of a pathogen, and her gradual bonding with a snail, brought to her for companionship by a friend. Reading this book was an escape to the wondrous, fantastical world of a quiet, mysterious, graceful, ancient creature who kept the author’s spirit from “evaporating” and then realized that world is all around us if we slow down, observe and learn. This is a remarkable story of healing, dignity, the resilience of the human spirit, and most importantly the wonders of nature. I loved every quiet moment I spent in Bailey’s world.