If pressed to choose a single favorite writer, I think I would have to select Alexandra Fuller. Putting aside that she shares the same hilariously undignified nickname as my beloved big brother - Bobo - and that even my dog, albeit a bright one, could tell good stories about the Fuller family, they're so kooky, I can't think of anyone else who puts words together so well. Moreover, she is honest and insightful and forgiving and funny, in spite of the tragedies, the war, the suffering. Every page is an inspiration.
You don't need to be particularly young to appreciate this novel written for young adults. I'm middle-aged (groan), but nevertheless loved it. It's a sad story, but the sadness is tempered by the intelligence and circumspection of its young heroes, Hazel and Augustus, who show us that it's not how long you live, but how well you live. And what these two young people are able to get out of - and give us with - their short lives, wow.
Before she became famous for writing WILD, Strayed was the anonymous advice columnist for therumpus.com, where she dispensed wisdom on all variety of human experiences. This is a collection of those letters and essays, but it reads more like a memoir, as Strayed plumbs her own depths for others' benefit. I read it in a day and a half and vowed to give it to every one of my nearest and dearest, Strayed moved me so.
Full disclosure: I could live on memoirs. I'm a junkie for other, real people's stories - their hardships, triumphs, and intensely personal insights. And I like food, too, and use it, on occcasion to self-soothe. So, do the math. Personal memoir + food + novelist author = happy Becky. Well, maybe happy's not the right word. But, wow. Wow. And actually, the food part is kind of a front, like the gateway drug to the real stuff within, which is hardcore self-discovery. You could actually get away with describing it to those who ask as 'like M.F.K. Fisher and Ruth Reichl,' but secretly loving it for the sheer fact that Kate Christensen tells you everything.
I'm not even sure why I picked this book off the shelf, but I started it on Saturday afternoon and had finished by Sunday evening. You Are One of Them spoke to me on a number of levels, and did so softly, almost cunningly, which was clearly just what I needed. Perhaps most striking was its evocation of the mid '80's to an adolescent's mind: the excitement of pop culture's rapid ascent, counterbalanced by the real threat of nuclear mutual destruction. As good as her descriptions are though, Holt delivers a plot that is every bit as compelling in both its familiarity and in its understated suspense. You Are One of Them is a triumph I'll read again.
Every once in a rare while, a novel comes along that bears both breathtaking prose and an enthralling plot. & Sons is one of those; I read it slowly, in awe of Gilbert's talent for putting astute observation to words, but turned to it every chance I had to learn the fate of A.N. Dyer, his three sons and the narrator, Philip Topping. My favorite line: "Fathers start as gods and end as myths and in between whatever human form they take is calamitous for their sons." Call me an evangelist for this brilliant young novelist.
Chris Bohjalian bravely confronts his own ethnic history in this gripping, new historical novel. With alternating narratives from the past and present, Bohjalian takes the reader on a shocking exploration of the Armenian genocide, its subjugation, denial, cover-up, and brush-aside by entire nations, if not history itself. But despite the heavy subject matter, Bohjalian's sense of humor shines through like a ray of sunny redemption. Kudos to Chris!
If you liked Blood, Bones & Butter, you'll eat up this memoir by Marcus Samuelsson, former executive chef of New York's celebrated scandinavian restaurant, Aquavit. Orphaned as a child in Ethiopia, adopted by Swedes, and trained in Switzerland and France, Samuelsson is a real child of the world. And while Yes, Cheftells the reader much about the kitchens he worked in and the dishes he devised, it is mainly a very powerful account of one young man's personal and professional maturation.
You know that expression, "he couldn't talk his way out of a wet paper bag?" Well, Michael Ondaatje can WRITE his way out of an ocean-going liner. Man, he can tell a story. In this case, it's an autobiographical coming-of-age story about a young boy sent alone from his Sri-Lankan home to Great Britain, by way of ship. Ostensibly, his distant, female cousin is to supervise im, but distracted by the eligible gentlemen on board, she leaves 11 year-old Michael to the company of inmates and eccentrics. Marvelous.
It's WWII: Marian Sutro is an educated, young English woman with a French mother and a native's grasp of the the French language, so she gets recruited by the British Special Operations Executive, a top-secret company of sabotageurs. I'm not a big spy novel reader, but Trapeze had me from the beginning and didn't let go. There's sex, espionage, and a palpitation-inducing foot chase. What more could you want?
You know that expression, "he couldn't talk his way out of a wet paper bag?" Well, Michael Ondaatje can WRITE his way out of an ocean-going liner. Man, can he tell a story! In this case, it's an autobiographical coming-of-age story about a young boy sent alone from his Sri-Lankan home to Great Britain, by way of ship. Ostensibly, his distant, older, female cousin is to supervise him, but distracted by the many eligible gentlemen onboard, she leaves 11-year old Michael to the company of inmates and eccentrics. Marvelous.
Chess, contemporary Russian politics, and an incurable neurological disease collide in this impressive first novel by Jennifer DuBois. Irina has been diagnosed with Huntington's disease when she comes across a letter her chess afficionado father - who died of Huntington's - wrote to a famous Russian master inquiring how he handles a game which is a "lost cause." This leads her on a search for the answer from the chess master, who is now a vociferous adversary and and political opponent of Vladimir Putin. Intrigue!
I'm no foodie; I'd just as soon eat a bowl of cereal as bouillabaise for dinner. But this memoir may have converted me - at least for the time I was reading it. In language that delivered as much flavor as it attempted to describe, Gabrielle Hamilton writes candidly about her impulsively launched career as a chef, her family, and her love of a woman, a man, and her children. While Blood, Bones & Butter will appeal to fans of Ruth Reichl and Anthony Bourdain, it also admirably transcends the food memoir genre. Taste it; I dare you.
You don't need to be particularly young to appreciate this novel written for young adults. I'm middle-aged (ugh), but nevertheless, I loved it. It's a sad story, but the sadness is tempered by the sparkling intelligence and circumspection of its young heroes, Hazel and Augustus, who show us that it's not how long you live, but how well you live. And what these two young people are able to get out of - and give us with - their short lives. Wow. I recommend this for ages 12+
Hillary Jordan delivers a spectacular sophomore effort with When She Woke, nothing at all like her first, Mudbound, save for the fabulous writing. In a manner reminiscent of Margaret Atwood's Handmaid's Tale, Jordan spins a modern version of the Scarlet Letter, in which a young woman, pregnant by her minister, has an abortion and is 'melachromed' in lieu of imprisonment. "When she woke, she was red." Stunning & scary, considering the current political trends in America.
Wow. This tight, evocative novel is a keeper! That is, it will stay on my shelf and with me for a long time. It's about a girl who disappears, but mostly it's about the boys who stay behind and grow up in her absence. Books often burn images onto my mind, but this one burned a soundtrack, too. It's nostalgic and a little dark, but also very reassuring in the way it treats the voyage from adolescence to adulthood.
If you liked THE HELP or THE GUERNSEY LITERARY AND POTATO PEEL PIE SOCIETY, and are looking for another really worthy read, pick up this outstanding novel by Ellen Feldman. I'm reading it right now and am loving it for everything from the vivid period detail to how it has made me long to hug each of my grandfathers, both of whom were WWII vets, one more time.
Fallon's loosely connected short stories all take place at Fort Hood, the Texas military base, and paint an impressionistic portrait of the homes and lives left behind when the soldiers are gone. This slim volume moved me, exposing the experiences of military families as so much more than than the stereotype of stoic and dutiful. Yes, I admit, it was the comparisons to Tim O’Brien, Raymond Carver, and Jhumpa Lahiri that caused me to place You Know When the Men Are Gone
into my TBR pile, but it was reading the first page that led me swiftly
to the last. As an anti-war, anti-
jingoism liberal from the far reaches of New England, I’d never given
much conscious thought to the quotidian lives of military families.
Vague sympathy and obligatory gratitude, perhaps, but my disdain for the
policies that led us to the last several military
conflicts has always interfered with any deeper compassion. Siobhan
Fallon’s stories, however, like a door left ajar or the thin walls of
army housing, gave me access to the private worlds of these very real
people and disarmed me of my bias. I found myself
reading with the same interest with which I approach more exotic
material, and learned that the wounds of an unjust war extend to the
soldiers’ loved ones every bit as unfairly as they did when my
grandfathers served so honorably in WWII.
The President read it on vacation, Oprah picked it for her Book Club, the priggish Atlantic reviewer skewered it - everyone's talking about it. And frankly, I really enjoyed it. Yes, Franzen's characters are unlikeable, his worldview is gloomy and his proselytizing can get old (should I SHOOT the cat?!) but his prose is a thrill to read and his observations so astute that my heart raced and my breath fell short.
Topical and contemporary meet literary in this powerful and slim novel by Helen Schulman about a liberal, academic family, relocated from Ithaca, NY to NYC. Richard and Elizabeth Bergamot's social and professional equilibrium is upset enough by the cultural shift, but when their teenage son Jake forwards a sexually explicit video sent to him by a younger girl at his elite private school, their lives really threaten to fall.
Ha Jin is one of the finest observers of cultural conflict in the literary realm, his last two books examing the lives of Chinese living in America. In Nanjing Requiem, he sets an American missionary with noble, albeit naive, intentions within the context of the 'Rape of Nanking,' a wartime atrocity wrought on the Chinese by the invading Japanese. He just barely hints at the degree to which the Japanese brutalized the residents of Nanjing, but in his restraint lies the power of the novel. He is a fine writer!
Read the jacket copy for details, but take this from me: this book is FUNNY - both ha-ha and odd. Don't expect a brilliant ending, but do count on being made to laugh out loud at absurdity after absurdity, each one truer than the last. Some will drift away as ephemerally as an episode of Judge Judy, while others will linger, leaving a bitter, Palin-esque aftertaste. If you have enjoyed Shteyngart, Tropper, or Lethem, read it.
The characters of this ambitious debut novel by former MiddKid Eleanor Henderson move back and forth between gritty, working-class "Lintonburg, VT" (read: Burlington) and socio-economically diverse neighborhoods of NYC, c. 1987. Their wildly different worlds inter-connect through education, music, religion & drugs in an updated twist on 70's counter-culture. Familiar & alien; clean & intoxicated; penniless & privileged - Ten Thousand Saints is a study in many contrasts, and a good, solid read. Henderson has a bright future in fiction.
That I'm devouring this baseball novel is surprising, as I spent 8 innings of the last MLB game I went to in the bar, reading. But Harbach's writing is so luscious that I keep interrupting Chris' enjoyment of the playoffs to read passages like this one aloud:The second pitch came in just as fast, but more toward the center of the plate. Owen, after waiting what seemed to be far too long, dropped his hands and swung. It was a baseball commonplace, dimly remembered from Affenlight's childhood days as a half-hearted Braves fan, that left-handed batters had more graceful swings than righties, long effortless swings that swooped down through the strike zone and greeted shoetop pitches sweetly. Affenlight didn't see why this should be so, unless the right and left sides of the bodies possessed inherently different properites, something to do with the halves of the brain, but Owen's langid, elliptical swing did nothing to deflate the hypothesis.
Swoon. i haven't finished yet, and I think I'm stalling. I don't want this book to end.
An exquisitely restrained, yet crystalline portrait of the author's friendship with fellow author Caroline Knapp. Caldwell and Knapp, two mature, single women, met and bonded over their dogs, but ultimately forged a relationship that was every bit as intimate as a marriage - until Knapp's death at 42 of lung cancer. Let's Take the Long Way Home addresses love, grief, and the inescapable fact that we must sometimes go on alone.