The handful of books I am currently most excited about are right here on this page. I read widely, though, and hate to ever remove a book from my list of suggestions, so I've categorized my archived picks. Scroll down and click on the links to find more of my recommendations!
At once a sprawling history and a deeply intimate story, Lessons is an impressive and moving feat of novelistic ambition and artistry. McEwan explores, through the life of his protagonist Roland Baines, the impact on us of both uniquely personal experiences and global historical events. And I say, "on us," because throughout this book I recognized myself, in spite of the generational, cultural, and gender divide between me and Roland Baines (and McEwan, for that matter). McEwan's ability to universalize his characters' struggles without diluting the specificity of the story is so masterful as to verge on the magical.
I rarely listen to such literary fiction, as I'm too easily distracted and lose the nuances, but Lessons was so compelling from the very beginning that not only was I able to stay with it, I relished the focus it demanded and used it as a most effective distraction while running long distances for marathon training. And now that the listening is over, I'm going to read the physical book, because that's how much I loved it.
If you choose to listen, please consider joining Libro.fm, the audiobook app that supports independent bookstores like VBS. Here's the LINK. You can subscribe or purchase one book at a time.
I liked this book so damn much. It's a memoir, but it's also a biography and a social history. Also a Poet is Ada Calhoun's very personal investigation of her father, the art critic Peter Schjeldahl, by way of his relationship to the work and life of the poet John O'Hara. It's not only a true pleasure to read, it is rich with information about a literary movement with which I was only vaguely familiar, so I learned a lot. For me, that is the description of the perfect book, so... This book is perfect.
You absolutely do not have to be a teenager suffering from severe cystic acne to appreciate this searingly honest and ascerbically funny memoir by TV writer Laura Chinn, but I can guarantee that if you are — or were — that teenager, you will. The rest of us, we who had only the occasional zit, we'll count our lucky stars. But don't get me wrong; this book isn't entirely about acne. Acne, specifically Chinn's, is just the through line of this surprisingly good, if totally shocking, memoir. The breadth and depth of emotion in this book had me reeling at times, feeling at once really fucking grateful the the life of relative ease I had, and intensely sad for all the kids like Chinn, whose lives are just trainwrecks. That she survived the alcoholism, drugs, sex, divorce, loss, disfigurement... well, the statistics are there in the book. She's an anomaly, I'm sure, but Acne: A Memoir is proof that, with persistence and a healthy dose of humor, pretty much anything is surmountable. There is a lot of hope in this book.
I liked this even more than Hamnet! Set in 16th C. Italy, then an assemblage of dynastic city-states, The Marriage Portrait is the story of Lucrezia de' Medici, the 15 year-old daughter of the grand duke of Tuscany, who has been betrothed to the son of the duke of Ferrara upon her older sister's untimely death. O'Farrell, who proved with Hamnet her a deft creativity with historical material, has written an elegant and downright thrilling drama. While reading this sumptuous book I swear I could feel the fabrics of the various characters' clothing, sense the damp of the stone-walled castles, and smell the burning candle wax. Fabulous!
I was completely mesmerized by this novel set in a nameless and isolated alpine village where the women suffer a mysterious "affliction" that causes some mothers to disappear. Schaitkin's descriptions of the setting's natural features are gorgeous, and her subtle exploration of motherhood — and otherhood — is masterful. My experience reading this book was so magical that I keep wanting to return to it, as one does upon waking from a particularly curious dream.
I loved this big, sprawling book about a Maine summer "cottage" community and the Quaker Philadelphians who settled it so much that I hybridized my reading experience in order to not have to stop unless conversation was unavoidable. I read the physical book when I could, and when I had to do something else, I put in headphones and listened to the audio. In this manner, I finished it in 2 days. The strong, fiercely independent, 80 year-old woman at its center — Agnes Lee, a renowned children's book author — won my heart in much the same way as Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteredge did. I might actually be looking forward to growing old now...
I can hardly express how much respect I have for the great Lynne Tillman's willingness to put this work into the world. For how do we write about our mothers? All true honesty on the subject is inherently brutal, and when caregiving comes into play, the stakes are so, so much higher. I suggest pairing this with Brian Morton's Tasha to take in the full hellscape of caring for a difficult, deteriorating mother.
This memoir-in-essays is revealing, perceptive, and terribly funny. I gulped it down along with my near-beer and a bowl of pita chips over the course of a few evenings while my husband cooked, periodically reading him passages I simply could not keep to myself. Upon finishing, I put the book down and took a moment to mourn the fact that I am neither among Hauser's students, friends, or chosen family, nor her dog.
This is definitely one of the oddest books I've read in a long time. Wilson uses a storytelling device not unlike that employed by Patricia Highsmith in The Talented Mr. Ripley, wherein one character recounts to another a rather long and complicated story. The reader shares with the receiving half of the conversational pair an enticing dose of wonder, disbelief, and surprise at what is being disclosed over complimentary food and drink in a first-class lounge during a flight delay. I listened to this one, to be honest, and it got me through several runs which might have otherwise been pretty brutal! Mouth to Mouth was on Barack Obama's summer reading list. I admit, I fell for his recommendation. Glad I did!
Not since Lucy Grealy's Autobiography of a Face has a disability/disease memoir captured my consciousness so intensely. Jones, a philosopher by training, shares her most intimate observations of life–beauty, suffering, and the quotidian acts we all perform–through her scholar's lens, but does not leave out her personal circumstances: she has a rare congenital condition known as sacral ageneis and is small, hunched, unable to walk "normally", and is in chronic pain. Without making an explicit argument or banging the drum of identity politics, she nevertheless ignites a radical empathy in the reader. I did not want to work the day I wrote this: I only wanted to read this gorgeous book.
Why do I feel so compelled to make my endorsement of this book into a confession? Likely because I am a terrible book snob and before this particular James Patterson book came along, I had never felt the least bit inclined to read anything of his oeuvre (I told you I was a snob). But because I'm a snob, I know something about the world of compettive show jumping, and I couldn't resist this story of a mother and daughter competing for a spot on the Olympic team. The writing is only so-so and the characters are strictly 2D, but it didn't matter; Patterson knows how to spin a yarn and move the reader along (his trick? Short. Chapters. Over a hundred of them!). I could not put it down. We all need a light read now and then, so go out there, find a James Patterson novel about something that interests you (and note, I can barely ride a horse, so you needn't be an expert, only vaguely curious) and read it. I promise you pleasure and the satisfaction of finishing, if nothing else.
Charming, warm-hearted, and uplifiting! Mary Jane is the story of a nerdy 14-year old girl in 1970's Baltimore, who slips out from under the strictures of her conservative parents when she is hired as a summer nanny for the progressive family down the street. The dad is a psychiatrist who is secretively treating the rock-star husband of a TV variety show star (think Cher), whom the braless hippie mom has been assigned to keep company. Mary Jane whips the messy house into shape, takes marvelous care of her charge, and learns how to have a little fun in the process.
I am neither foodie nor fan (though I like food and I have nothing against Stanley Tucci), but I picked this up after hearing an interview and am so glad I did. Tucci's reminiscences of dishes and meals and moments of his suburban childhood drew me in and warmed my heart - and my belly. We have made a couple of his recipes and they're just what you want from a memoir with recipes: food for and by real people. I especially recommend the variation on Pasta e Fagioli that includes scrambled eggs. Mmmm.
The reason this book is so big is because it is both a stunning novel and an entire, gut-wrenching course in the history of Black people in America. Jeffers needs all of its nearly 800 pages to accommodate the rich detail and complexities of one family's Georgia roots and the myriad ways those roots have informed the branches generations on. She might have told the story in half the words, but to our great fortune, the poet Jeffers had all the words to tell it whole. Make space for this book; it is a treasure.
If you're looking for a big, rich novel to get lost in, look no further. With threads of romance and adventure, Shipstead weaves together the story of an eccentric woman aviator and the troubled Hollywood actress taped to play her in a bio-pic, ultimately revealing the paradoxical fragility and durability of human lives.
An unnamed narrator, recently relocated from New York City, has taken a new job as a translator at the International Criminal Courts in The Hague. Lonely, she takes up with a Dutchman whose wife has recently left him and taken his children to Portugal. At work, she is assigned to translate for the despot of an unnamed African nation who has been accused of war crimes. more is communicated in the gaps of this spellbinding novel than in its actual words, much as in real life.
Kazuo Ishiguro is, hands down, the reigning master of the understated novel, and Klara and the Sun is yet another laurel in his crown. The bulk of the emotional substance of this novel about a girl and her solar-powered artificial friend occurs below the surface. The text tells the story, but its meaning is between the words, which is not to say it's a hard book... Ishiguro feeds it to the reader, but manages to do so by sleight of hand. I was mesmerized by this magical novel.
This was not the novel I expected. It is far more immediate, gritty, timely. From the jacket and title, I expected one of those "lyrical" novels, when in fact it is about a tough, young, Asian-American journalist who returns to ther remote corner of America where she was raised, but which has been irrevocably changed by the oil boom and the men who populate it. It's about gender and class and money and sex and violence... In other words, it's kind of dark. I loved it, but the pretty painting on the cover is all wrong.
It's not a book for everyone, but Com Toibin's new novel about Thomas Mann sure triggered my intellectual curiosity. My knowledge of the Nobel-winning German novelist was limited to those minimal signifiers until Toibin opened the doors of the man's mind and welcomed me in. Now I understand Mann's place in the pantheon of 20th C. literature and have a deeper understanding of Germany, European politics, and America's promise – or lack thereof – for the exiled. I'd never really had any interest in reading Mann, but Buddenbrooks is now on my stack and I am looking forward to diving in, with Toibin's Mann to inform my experience.
This is a charming and profoundly hopeful book. Due to its popularity I may have avoided it just a little, but I am so glad that I gave in because I genuinely enjoyed it and found some useful wisdom between its pages. I would recommend it as readily to the young, who still have so many choices left which will determine the course of their lives, as to the (let's say) more mature, who may be grappling with regrets. Delightful, reassuring, magical.
Towles lives up to his estimable reputation with this story of four boys, eachi in search of his own version of liberty, on the road together. It's adventurous and fun, yet heartfelt and full of compassion for its characters. I thoroughly enjoyed htis novel for all of its elements: plot, character development, quality of prose, readability – The Lincoln Highway has it all!
I was really surprised by how this memoir by SNL cast member Cecily Strong touched me. I don't know what I expected really, but what she delivers is a remarkably honest account of how hard it was to lose her beloved cousin to brain cancer, and how Covid quarantine forced her to confront her lifelong struggles with anxiety and depression. Books like this, from talented and accomplished people, are, I think, a real gift to the rest of us who might struggle from time to time.
A middle-aged woman goes out of town to visit a friend who is dying of cancer and encounters a man with whom she was once involved. That's pretty much the plot; the pleasures of this novel by the National Book Award winner for The Friend are the internal musings of a woman who has begun to feel invisible. Reading it was like having a long, intense conversation with a close friend. Think Sally Rooney for those of us over 40.... I loved this book!