The Book of V. Anna Solomon

I am giving Solomon’s novel a five-star rating primarily on ingenuity. This is simply a brilliant and masterful take on the Story of Esther. The means she uses, weaving together female characters (one of whom is Esther herself) from different time periods, including our own modern age, and exploring their struggle with the roles handed to them, with their effort to be comfortable within their skin as women in their particular time periods, is so clever and intriguing. Solomon’s writing is also solid and evocative. This is a wonderful book and a must for those interested in the re-envisioning of history (biblical history in this case).

 

The Push. Ashley Audrain

Thought-provoking, heartbreaking, crushing. Audrain’s novel lays out the unbearable possibilities that sometimes interfere with what is supposed to be the most natural thing of all: mothering. Her story of four generations of women, their struggles as mothers, as daughters, and as women simply trying to find their way, is both beautiful and tragic. Hold on tight for this one. It’s a tough ride.

 

A Promised Land. Barack Obama

Lucid, engaging, warm, informative. I don’t have enough adjectives to describe Obama’s tale of his journey into the office and the first years there. He’s a very strong writer with a strong voice so what could be dry comes across as both lively and interesting. It’s fascinating to read his version of certain world events that I’d only known through the words of commentators, reporters, etc. Lovely man and that comes through in spades.

 

Interior Chinatown. Charles Yu

This book uses an unusual construct to make its point, places us on the scene of a movie made in Chinatown as a means of hurling us (the reader) right into the experience of being Asian in America. Along the way we get to know one family and its pain, the difficulties it faces trying to assimilate and acculturate, the blocks put on their way by both Americans and American cultural constructs. It’s effective, even brilliant, and perfectly conveys an experience that many of us cannot even begin to imagine. Don’t be thrown off by the beginning. The screenplay format makes the beginning a bit rough going. Persevere and you’ll fall in love with the main character, a man who’s trying to find both his way and his place.

 

Israel: A Simple Guide to the Most Misunderstood Country on Earth

I have to admit that I might have skipped this book if Israel hadn’t just had yet another war with Gaza and the world hadn’t, yet again, jumped all over its back with accusations and pronouncements that clearly smacked of antisemitism. I discovered Noa Tishby to be a very well-spoken spokesperson at a time when it was desperately needed and, after following her on Instagram, purchased the book. To my delight, I discovered a well-considered, well-written, lucid, and even-keeled presentation of history both ancient and more modern. Tishby is basically a peacenik so I liked her politics from the start, the way she was willing to judge Israel poorly when it failed but for the most part, was eager to clear up misunderstandings, exaggerations, blatant lies, and the purposeful distortion of facts. I would recommend this book very highly for those who want to step back and hear about the Jewish people’s extremely long relationship with the land of Israel, the difficulties faced by the Palestinians trying to establish their own homeland, and the bold facts behind platforms solely meant to do damage (BDS) when constructive measures are so sorely needed. I recommend the audio version. She’s an actress and has a very engaging voice and manner!

 

Migrations. Charlotte McConaghy

This is such a beautiful novel. It’s about nature, both human and animal, and how it cannot be thwarted but must run its course. It’s about love, not the kind with expectations, the kind that insists on controlling, but instead, that which embraces the gift with which it has been bestowed.
The words, the language, the story about migrations, both human and animal, all add up to a real masterpiece. I have almost no interest in birds but it made not one difference. I just loved every bit of this book.

 

Memorial. Bryan Washington

This is one beautiful book. Washington’s prose is exquisite and precise. It never gets fancy but is consistently spot-on in terms of both energy, expression, and emotion. This story of hope, love, desire, and survival in the face of life’s challenges is just extraordinary. Wonderful way to usher in another year of reading.

 

Homeland Elegies. Ayad Akhtar

Brilliant, stimulating, thought-provoking, and compassionate. Akhtar’s novel/memoir is simply amazing, managing to animate a subject that is intensely germane to the world in which we live. His exploration of his own experience as an American besides those of his parents, who immigrated to America from Pakistan, in an America that has slowly but most definitely migrated toward Trump culture, is absolutely fascinating. It’s a history lesson, a civics lesson, a contemporary culture wake-up, and an extremely personal tale of finding one’s way all rolled up into one.

 

Anxious People. Fredrik Backman

I love Fredrik Backman’s writing and his lovely and hopeful homilies. I’ve adored several of his other books. But this one somehow wasn’t quite up to par. I never once thought to close it, or give up on it, because there’s always something so charming about his characters and the predicaments in which they find themselves, but I felt uninvested this time around. This book is great as a simple tale of how people can learn, can change their feathers, can right their wrongs, and can step outside of themselves to lend a hand to others. It’s a book that emphasizes the fact that we’re all in this together! But again, it doesn’t reach thems of ones like A Man Called Ove, Beartown and Us Against You.

 

Aftershocks. Nadia Owusu

Owusu’s story is startling, unexpected, and crackles with the energy of a young life already lived. The author moved around the world, first after her parents, then with her father. Her journey reflects her exposure to a variety of cultures, disruptions, and personal upheavals. I think that what made this a special book was the language–it positively buzzes, her words linking together in jarring sentences that were almost poetry more than prose. Finding it difficult to follow her twisted path, I clung to the visceral descriptions of moments and I found them quite beautiful.

 

The Mothers. Brit Bennett

I absolutely loved this book. The story, the writing, the exploration of the characters, the thoughtful consideration of what daughters seek from their mothers, and the consequent pressure on mothers to get it right when so much is wrong– it comes together seamlessly.
This book is both a fabulous and meaningful read. I really enjoyed the author’s The Vanishing Half bu thought that The Mothers was even better.

 

Of Women and Salt. Gabriela Garcia

Garcia’s prose is vivid, tactile, and masterful, making reading this book like eating an especially tasty meal. The story she weaves together, of mothers and daughters separated by generations, misunderstandings, secrets, and longings they cannot overcome, is heart-breaking and moving and occasionally, hopeful. I think I felt sadder more than uplifted but that didn’t detract from the experience. The strands cross time and countries and sometimes I felt the distance between them was too great to bring together, but Garcia manages it with a beautiful stroke at the end. (No spoiler here). There’s a beautiful lesson about everything we want to be and achieve as mothers and the cold realities that frustrate their realization.

 

Burnt Sugar. Avni Doshi

This novel is excruciatingly painful but absolutely beautifully written. The protagonist has suffered a lifetime of bad, and even cruel or nonexistent, mothering but now steps in to take care of her mother who is suffering signs of dementia. The push and pull between these characters over the course of two lifetimes is explored in a back and forth timeline. The exploration of mothering becomes more and more
Intense as the history of the two unfolds and the tables continue to turn. It is truly Doshi’s beautiful way with words that holds the reader’s rapt attention. Not an easy read otherwise.

 

Infinite Country. Patricia Engel

A beautiful picture about the dominance of family over country, about the woes of immigration tangles, about surviving systems set up to frustrate and depress. This story of a family torn in two and their struggle to stay together and eventually find their way back to one another is very timely, extremely engaging, and many times, heartbreaking. Although the author gives us a vivid description of Colombia as well as the kind of America experienced by new immigrants (legal and not), her best gift is the depiction of a family trying to find its way and never losing hope.

 

What’s Mine and Yours. Naima Coster

I adored this exploration of two families, of relationships between sisters, of how challenging it can be to get the mother-daughter relationship right. Naima’s writing is fluent, her characters well-fleshed out and the story is both engaging and moving.
Of course, on top of the human story is one exploring race: Black, Latino, White, over the last few decades. (The story moves back and forth over time). Never-ending, tortured, painful and with little chance of not playing a pivotal role in the lives of the characters.
Very strong read.

 

The Death of Vivek Oji. Akwaeke Emezi

A heartbreaking book about the difficulties, cultural, familial, and societal of truly being who you are. No spoilers here. Emezi paints a gorgeous picture not of Nigerian society and its customs. The delineation of the characters, especially the main two male characters, rings true. The novel is well-written and really a pleasure to read. Its delineation of traditional gender assignment is riveting and timely.

 

Sharks in the Times of Saviors. Kawai Strong Washburn

Gorgeous writing. Full stop. Wow. What a plethora of exquisite, perfectly crafted sentences! On top of that, this is a beautiful story of a broken family desperate to heal, of working against the grain to survive. I have never been to Hawaii but I imagine if I had been, it would have been all the more meaningful. Washburn describes it so well, in such a heart-breakingly “felt” manner.

 

Girl in Translation. Jean Kwok

I really enjoyed Jean Kwok’s Searching for Sylvie Lee and was eager to get back to the beginning and see where she started. I have to admit that although Girl in Translation is a solid read, I found it predictable and a lot less impressive. That being said, it was her debut! And since her storytelling has become that much stronger (as made evident in Sylvie Lee) I have to say that she started on sound footing. This story describes the very difficult life of a young girl and her mother, fresh from China, making their way with absolutely nothing in NYC. Kimberley’s willpower and brains eventually pull them out of a poverty-stricken life defined by the loans that got them to the US in the first place, and endless hours spent working at the kind of factories we know are illegal. The twist at the very end of the book is one of the only ones I hadn’t seen coming. I think I wanted to love the book and that’s where it fell short for me.

 

Yellow Wife. Sadeqa Johnson.

Compelling, horrific story of life in Antibellum South from the perspective of a slave of mixed parentage. The author loosely based it on actual historical reports of the slave experience and one particularly interesting story of a slave prison owned and run by a man who married a mulatto woman. The story feels true from start to finish due to Johnson’s strong writing and succeeds in both horrifying and offending. The possibility that slaves of mixed race found alternative ways to survive the nightmare is intriguing and feels genuine. Great listen.

 

What Comes After. JoAnne Tompkins

I would call this novel a thriller with a heart. Tompkins effectively draws us into the characters’ extremely complex lives, making us sigh and cry with them while unrolling a roller coaster of a tale. Her writing is clear, her exploration of real conflict within the soul of her characters–good doesn’t always prevail over evil–, and her ability to build up tension are all very strong. I found the fact that one of the characters was Quaker, a religion that encourages reflection and silent prayer as a means of healing and living, absolutely fascinating. It added a very interesting layer of spirituality to his inner struggle. For the record, I’m not a fan of thrillers and was, accordingly, less drawn into the details of the storyline. Nevertheless, the exploration of human flaws was strong enough to make it a very good, compelling, read.

 

Good Neighbors. Sarah Langan

Langan offers a cutting and succinct portrayal of American suburban dysfunction! The story of one neighbourhood is positively frightening. I felt as though I were reading a thriller. And perhaps that’s what the author intended. The terror and mess created by one terribly unstable resident bring the entire neighbourhood to its knees. This story shows the very worst of humanity, most especially their willingness to rally behind whatever cause seems, on the surface, most just. I found it a painful read saved by Langan’s clear and fluid writing style and the especially hopeful voice she gives to the children despite their parents’ refusal to truly see.

 

The Nature of Fragile Things. Susan Meissner

Very nice book with twists and turns that keep you turning the page. Meissner’s prose is clear and fluent. Three stars seems a little meek. I would have given it 3 1/2. For me it was missing a bit more depth in writing, a feeling that would have made me feel more connected, or at least, invested, in the main characters. That being said, it’s a lovely tale of women bonding in the worst of situations. Nice read.

 

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents

This book is beautifully written. Wilkerson makes a very impressive argument of the existence of a kind of caste system in the United States as indicated by the treatment, over the centuries, of African Americans. I think it makes for an effective wake up call. At the same time her comparisons between the treatment of the Jews by the Nazis abs African Americans by white Americans is problematic. I am willing to accept, only, the idea of the untouchables. Beyond this I don’t think the comparison holds water.
Still. Very impressive and well researched.

 

Greenlights. Matthew McConaughey

I really enjoyed this book on audible. I love McConaughey’s voice and his spirit. But I’m not sure if I would have been as enthusiastic if I’d read it in text. It’s a nice story of his life–and very amusing–but not anything to write home about. That being said, listening to him tell his tale and learn his lessons along the way was a complete pleasure. Seriously. I would give it a four star rating as an audible book.

 

Corregidora. Gayl Jones

This book was recommended to me. Otherwise, I never would have discovered it.(It was first published in 1974!) But what a gem! This is a heartbreaking and beautifully crafted story about what mother’s pass to their daughters–highlighting the nightmares of generations past and the means to survive them. The picture of life for the main character, a young black woman trying to make her way while struggling with relationships with a man and continuing to sing the blues, is just exquisite.

 

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. Jared Diamond

This is a brilliant book, albeit not always the easiest read. Diamond has stuffed it chock full of information that truly boggles the mind. I found myself having to go back, again and again, to see that I’d understood the significance of his theory. But it was well worth it as he effectively explains how geography and environment have favored development and prosperity, not necessarily intellect or moral superiority. He really transforms the assumptions about Eurasian hegemony, insisting on an entire reassessment of the history of the world. And for the record, he writes clear as day, it’s just that the book is so full of gems, so many revelations and facts, that it takes a slow and careful reading to take them all in. Well worthy of a Pulitzer Prize.

 

Great Circle. Maggie Shipstead

This is one sweeping novel. It’s about a brave woman who just wants to fly, to conquer the skies, at a time when women weren’t supposed/allowed to, and another woman almost a century later who’s afraid to fly both literally and emotionally. It explores how difficult it was to be a woman who wanted to remain independent one hundred years ago, accentuating the privilege by describing a woman who continues to feel she’d be better off not independent in our contemporary world. It’s one of those novels that sweeps you away, back and forth across the centuries, back and forth across the surface of the earth. Shipstead’s writing is simply beautiful, her long descriptive passages reminiscent of Dickens. She knows how to set a scene. This is a very long novel but once the reader is in, the pages literally fly by. Although fiction, it incorporates a lot of factual information regarding airplanes, navigation, women in flight in the first half of the twentieth century (including during WWII), and our planet. It will make any reader want to sprout wings.

 

We Run the Tides. Vida Vendela

I really loved Vida’s Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name. Vida writes very well. I was less fond of We Run the Tides. It’s the kind of book that you can read straight through, the writing is strong, the characters well-conceived, the storyline compelling. I love San Francisco, and the descriptions of the city, from the viewpoint of an adolescent, are just lovely. All that being said, somehow the book fell short for me. I think I had trouble feeling empathy for the main character. That’s really critical to me, even if I have nothing in common with them. One note: It’s not officially YA, but it could be.

 

I’m Supposed to Protect you from all this. Nadja Spiegelman

Spiegelman’s memoir, an attempt to untangle the relationships between several generations of mothers and daughters, is a beautiful elegy to love, to resilience, and to parenting. Traveling across the world to figure out her own mother’s relationship with her grandmother, she discovers that there is no one version; that memory is saturated with desire and hope; that parenting is tainted by individual needs and dreams; that suffering is not exclusive to the younger generation. Spiegelman takes us back and forth between New York, Paris, and other French destinations with exquisite details, making this book a voyage of both place and the heart. Just wonderful.

 

The Last Thing He Told Me. Laura Dave

A page-turner with a heart. Dave manages to offer a thriller that grips the reader not only through the construction and revelation of the mystery but additionally, through empathy. We read onward because we care! Her writing is strong and evocative, her characters, a woman, her husband, and her teenage stepdaughter, are developed beautifully and believable. This is what I would call a strong summer book.

 

Count the Ways. Joyce Maynard

Maynard has written yet one more beautiful, point-perfect, book about families, the multiple challenges they face, and the way those challenges can unravel everything solid, and assumed permanent, both quickly and completely. The story is told by the mother, and her voice, hopeful, desperate, starry-eyed, frustrated, and heart-broken, comes through very clearly. I believe that any mother reading this book will both sympathize and empathize, mostly because of the rich descriptions with which Maynard describes the situations, sometimes complicated, sometimes not, with which her characters must deal. This is really a wonderful read.

 

The Light of Days. Judy Batalion

Batalion’s book is simply excellent. The story she reveals, of the resistance efforts of women in Poland during WWII, is simply extraordinary. It’s a real game-changer in terms of Holocaust literature. I’ve read a great deal of both non-fiction and historical fiction on the subject, yet nothing prepared me for the bravery, the guts, the pure hardened will of the group of women whose stories she shares. Coming across this material in the form of a small book of memoirs written by one of these women, Batalion took it upon herself to dig deeper and reveal the atrocities experienced by these women in their efforts to survive, to rebel, to save those they loved. I finished it and immediately started reading it a second time. It’s simply chockful of details that both astound, appall, and inspire. This book is a MUST for Holocaust lit readers.

 

West with Giraffes. Lynn Rutledge

I adored Rutledge’s novel. Based on a true fact, the miraculous survival and then, safe transportation of two giraffes across the US in 1938, the author has woven a beautiful tale of hope, love, and belief in the goodness in humanity. Woody has lost everything, both family and home. But he identifies something beautiful and genuine in these two creatures and decides to attach his own luck to their own. Thus begins an incredible journey which, although imagined by the author, comes off entirely believable. We follow the beautifully described cast of characters along their journey, rooting for them along the way, our hearts rising and falling as they are alternatively thwarted and then, successful. This novel has an old-fashioned “feel good” quality that I found refreshing.

 

Beautiful Country. Qian Julie Wang

This was an extremely well-written and absolutely crushing book. It reads like a novel so I would recommend it to those who don’t usually read memoirs. But hold on tight. Wang’s story of immigrating to the US as a child is harrowing and quite heart-breaking. She offers a boldly honest picture of what it was like to have no status, no money, and very little hope. The cost of the difficulties to her family life are described vividly. Debilitating at best. Most interesting to me were the parts where she described life at school, including her interactions with other students from both similar and different backgrounds as well as her teachers. One small disappointment: The very last section is kind of a fast-forward and I wanted to know a bit more about how that went (college, living away from her family, etc.).

 

Intimacies. Katie Kitamura 

Strange, compelling, and haunting. Kitamura’s protagonist is a translator at the International Court of Justice in The Hague deeply disturbed by the accused war criminals for whom she must translate. Her role as a transmitter of words whose significance extends far beyond their meanings unmoors her world–already destabilized by her incessant search for a place she can call home. The reader is swept in by the author’s gorgeous language and joins the protagonist in a fog of concerns, disturbances and eventually, self-revelation.

 

Firekeeper’s Daughter. Angeline Boulley

I am not a huge fan of YA but this book is just terrific. The story is interesting and eye-opening, the characters well-developed. It focuses on Native Americans in the area of the Upper Peninsula (Michigan), most specifically the issues they face regarding maintaining their identity within American culture and the problem of serious Meth addiction. The main character, a young woman about to graduate high school, is extremely amiable. We follow her desperate effort to maintain the dignity of her people in the face of extraordinarily difficult threats, rooting for her from start to finish. The dialogue is snappy and the characters well-articulating, keeping the readers on their toes. I would imagine that this book will win awards for both technical execution and topical significance. Just wonderful.

The Lincoln Highway. Amor Towles

Simply fabulous. I really enjoyed Amor Towles’ The Gentleman of Moscow and Rules of Civility, enough to go straight to this book within days of it being released, but I wasn’t ready for an even more cohesive, engaging, well-constructed novel. ‘The Lincoln Highway’ features beautifully fleshed-out characters, some you root for, some you root again, a simple premise made complex and interesting via multiple layers of engagement, and a beating heart. This novel highlights Towles’ exquisite writing style: descriptions that enliven, and flare for weaving a tale like no other. I would love to sit around the campfire with this author and listen to him spin a yarn! Pick up this book and you won’t want to put it down.

 

We Are Not Like Them. Christine Pride and Jo Piazza

This book does everything right, managing to be pertinent, timely, sensitive, thought-provoking, and compelling. It’s the kind of book you want to share with friends and talk about. It’s also one you can’t put down. The author combines a personal story with one of more global, or at least, national significance, allowing each room to grow and expand, to develop and provoke. It was a pleasure, as a Philadelphia native, to find my city so accurately woven into the storyline, albeit in ways that were sometimes excruciatingly painful.

 

Cloud Cuckoo Land. Anthony Doerr

Brilliant, engaging, and uplifting. Doerr has crafted a gorgeous novel with a clear message. The story shifts between six characters from different time periods, one of whom is a figure in a Greek tale presented as a fable. This sounds confusing but it’s not because Doerr manages to make clear who we are with at any given time; which character we are joining on their personal journey. His writing is just exquisite, the life he breathes into each figure so gentle and accurate as to make them instantly come alive for the reader. The fable around which the story is built (the one which is artfully connected to the life of each character) is that continual search for something better and the realization of the significance of home–something to which many of us can relate. This is one amazing novel.

 

Sankofa. Chibundu Onuzo

Onuzo’s novel explores the pain of a woman left adrift after a year in which she and her husband separate and her mother passes away. An unexpected discovery reveals the identity of the father she never knew. She embarks on a voyage to a foreign land in search of him and ends up learning quite a lot about herself. Race is a major issue within the book. Her mixed parentage (her mother is white and her father black), something that defined (and affected) her childhood in many ways, takes on an entirely different aspect within her new reality. This novel is beautifully written, rings extraordinarily true, and incorporates fascinating and well fleshed out characters. It’s a wonderful read.

 

Andrea Elliott. Invisible Child

Elliott’s Invisible Child is an absolute masterpiece of reportage. It follows the life of Dasani Coates from age 8-18, covering the times this young girl is homeless, lives in a shelter with her family, or is placed along with some of her siblings in a foster family; attends local public schools, challenged by her intelligence and inquisitiveness and later, a boarding school in Hershey, PA. Separated from her mother (due to a drug conviction), sometimes living with her father and her siblings, more often than not battling to maintain her dignity and insisting on her education, Dasani’s life is tumultuous and unsettled. Yet, despite all the odds, this spunky, clever child manages to hope for more, striving to achieve, and never giving up the dream of a stable family life. This is a beautiful, enlightening, horrific, distressing, and somehow both pessimistic and optimistic tale. It deserves all the hype it has received.

 

The Book of Mother. Violaine Huisman

“Fiction makes logic where there is none.” Violaine Huisman’s “The Book of Mother,” bristles with truth but reads like a novel. And when asked, the author said that only through fiction was she able to bring this extraordinary tale of her mother’s life to the printed page. Huisman’s prose is sweeping and non-stop. I found myself wondering when sentences would actually end; when the author would actually take a breath. But breathless works perfectly in this particular case as Huisman’s mother was lived on the edge, breaking taking one herself or allowing either of her two daughters, trying to make sense of the reality into which they were thrust, to do so. This is a very worthy addition to the literature on mothers and daughters, describing a life both unbelievable and very believable–following the trail of a woman who wanted to find more, live more, and do more and then became a mother–taking on that role known for singularly subsuming ego. Huisman’s tale is harrowing; the fact that she took on the task of writing it, brave.

 

Carry the dog. Stephanie Gangi

Riveting, disturbing, haunting, and harrowing, Gangi’s description of a woman excavating a past she can barely remember, desperate to understand in order to make some order of her present life, is beautifully conceived and rings true. Paralyzed for decades by trauma of a density and intensity that will shake the core of any reader, Bea finally tackles the actions of her mother, a photographer who became famous by creating photographs featuring her children nude (or naked). In unlocking an old archive of these photographs the protagonist unlocks both the past and her future. This book is an extraordinary tale of pain, betrayal, enlightenment, and redemption.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. Ocean Vuong

This is a gorgeous book by an extraordinary young writer. It’s a letter to his mother laced with their family history– in Vietnam, in Hartford as immigrants– and his sexual awakening. It’s a book full of beauty and pain, each emotion explored with exquisite precision. Vuong’s language is just a feast. I found myself rereading sentences, not because I didn’t know what he wanted to say, but because I understood exactly what he wanted to say and was amazed at how he nailed it! This isn’t an easy read, either emotionally or literally but, jam-packed with glorious moments, between the narrator and the main figures in his life (no spoilers) it’s more than worth the effort.

The Art of Losing. Alice Zeniter

This is a beautifully executed and emotional saga of a granddaughter, trying to make sense of her past by imagining, through research, the life of her grandfather back in Algeria both before and during the revolution for Algerian independence, and that of her father, who was born in Algeria, witnessed difficult times with a child’s eyes but did most of his “growing up” within the refugee camps in France. The novel is separated into three parts, exploring the lives and experiences of the three main characters separately. I had a bit of trouble with the pace of the book, which might be because it was translated from the original French. The section describing the grandfather’s life was in many ways the most riveting–filled as it was with action, difficult decisions, violence, and the lull of village life. The father’s section feels less extreme but still incorporates change, mobility, uprooting, frustration, and eventually, some kind of peace. By the time we get to Naima (the granddaughter), there is more introspection and consideration than action and the pace feels a bit heavy. When she actually makes a move the book again becomes fabulous and engrossing. All in all an essential book for those interested in Algeria and the emigration of Algerians to France, as well as their assimilation. It beautifully captures the dilemma for those who leave one country and move to another, who are forced to abandon everything they love and adopt what will forever seem foreign.

 

The 1619 Project. Nicole Hannah-Jones

Comprehensive, thought-provoking, emotional, inspiring. This compilation of history, sociology, poetry, and statistics is absolutely life-changing. The 1619 project, put together by Hannah-Jones is brilliant and will change the reader’s perspective on the founding of America and its founding fathers, forever. It is by no means a rehashing of history, but instead, its complete rewriting. Extending my gratitude to the multiple authors involved in the project for the enlightenment. The audio version, incorporating different voices and a range of emotions, is highly recommended.

 

To Paradise. Hanya Yanagihara

Yanagihara’s writing is as creamy smooth as butter. There’s no one better at telling a story and captivating the reader. I adored “A Little Life” and was very excited to read “To Paradise.” While I think that the book succeeds in many ways, exploring absolutely exquisite grandparent/grandchild relationships, the heartbreakingly sad lives of individuals who can’t quite figure out their place, and societies and environments that repel instead of embracing their inhabitants, its disparate nature and the vast range of time it covers, causes it to fall a bit short. The book is divided into three disparate sections. While there is a connection between them, a cleverly executed one at that, it isn’t enough to hold together the “whole.” The reader is submerged into three different realms from three different periods with completely different characters. All this means that although a very good read, one I really couldn’t put down, it somehow fell short of the mark. Still, a tour de force for this author.

 

Plunder.  Menachem Kaiser

Kaiser’s attempt to reclaim family property left behind in Poland, beginning with securing a proclamation of deceased for the relatives who were most certainly killed in concentration camps during the Holocaust, leads him to multiple discoveries, most of which were unanticipated. With a little digging, he uncovers information about an intriguing relative about whom he’d formerly had no knowledge, about treasure hunters still seeking valuables left behind in hidden caverns after being confiscated by Hitler, and finds out how unimportant a recovery of the past is, to many in his immediate family. His search becomes just as spiritual as well as material. The book is fascinating and written in an extremely engaging and direct manner. The courtroom scenes, for example, filled with legal minutiae that both torment and frustrate, end up being both intriguing and entertaining. This is simply a wonderful, enlightening, very human read. Kaiser’s ability to ride the waves of the sea into which he has waded is just inspiring.

 

Artcurious. Jennifer Dasal

This book is a pleasure. The author tells relatively unknown stories about some of the most famous artists in the annals of the art historical world as well as their works, also revealing those who we should have heard about but slipped between the cracks. It’s entertaining and enlightening. Writing (reading) as someone with a doctorate in art history, I was sure it would be very superficial and not all that interesting, but I found that Dasal added much to my knowledge, while both surprising and amusing. Now I’m going to check out her podcast.

 

I Hold a Wolf by the Ears. Laura Van Den Berg

Van den Berg has written a beautiful collection of short stories that deal with individuals who have suffered loss or are at a loss; who struggle to find their place in both relationships and among their siblings. There is a great deal of tragedy here which makes for tough reading. Nevertheless, her exquisite use of metaphor and masterful handling of time shifts, just brilliant, offer a very rich reading experience.

 

The School for Good Mothers. Jessamine Chan

This is an extremely difficult book to read. Not because of the writing, which flows and embraces the reader, compelling them forward. The difficulty stems from the subject: how mothers are judged for being anything less than perfect: one hundred percent devoted to their children, self-effacing, and unwavering in their affections. It would be hard for me to find anyone that fits this bill, but in the world Chan describes, that is the expectation of the legal system regarding mothering. The protagonist has a self-described “bad day” and does something probably none of the parents reading the book have ever done or even thought to have done, but it leads to a dizzying spiral so nefarious that even we, the judging outsiders, begin to question the system. No further spoilers, except to comment that the school to which the protagonist is sent to learn to be a “good mother,” offers a great deal of food for thought regarding what might be considered the pillars of mothering. Painful, thought-provoking, even important. A worthy read.

 

Empire of Pain. Patrick Radden Keefe

This is just an excellent book, an exposé that manages to present a lot of history in an extremely engaging and emotionally evocative manner. Keefe introduces us to the Sackler family from its first arrival in America, then escorts us through the various generations while making clear the role of each and every individual within what has become the Opioid Crisis. While it’s easy to just make the Sacklers the bad guys, and in many cases some of them were, Keefe manages to explain where and how everything went awry, despite the fact that its beginnings were in many ways just a chapter in the history of pharmaceutical development. His description of how personalities, medicine, and big business combined to create a social disaster in the United States is simply riveting.

 

Black Cake. Charmaine Wilkerson

Black Cake is a very fast and solid read. The story is intriguing, the characters interesting and the format, short chapters that focus on the various characters back and forth from the past to the present keep the reader engaged and wanting more. In many ways, it’s a direct hit. What kept me from loving it were a writing style that, although lucid, didn’t provoke, (not a problem for most!) and an attempt to check off too many boxes. The author makes a concerted effort to cover a lot of major themes, any one of which would have been enough on its own. She delves into climate control, immigration and assimilation, racism, and misogyny. The story itself is so strong, so moving, and quite riveting. It didn’t need the burden of carrying so many significant issues. It was all a little too much. Still, quite a good read.

 

The Violin Conspiracy. Brendan Slocumb
Slocumb’s novel is a very fast and satisfying read. The book is ostensibly a mystery but the mystery element is really the least interesting part of the story. In fact, most of the book is devoted to backstory describing Ray’s horribly unsupportive family, another greedy family who seeks to cash in on his loss (no spoilers), and, most interestingly, his experience as an African American classical musician in America. There are many scenes describing his victimization due to profiling. What I really loved about the book were the passages describing what Ray experiences, feels, and sees when he plays the violin. They were just beautiful. It is obvious that the author himself is a musician. Lovely debut novel.
Don’t Cry for Me. Daniel Black
This is an absolutely beautiful book. It’s basically a series of letters written from a father to his son over the course of a few months when he knows that he is going to die. (No spoiler). The father expresses the limits to his fathering, its failures, and what he didn’t know. In doing this he explains the fathering he received from his grandfather and its relationship to his being several generations closer to slavery. The sentiments, family history, and regrets recorded in this series of letters ring incredibly true and are nothing short of heart-breaking. This is especially true because they are framed within a very old understanding of patriarchy and masculinity, of ownership–less of master to slave than of man to woman. This is a wonderful and thought-provoking read that offers a golden lesson regarding the significance of effective parenting.
Woman on Fire. Lisa Barr
Lisa Barr’s latest is a page-turning thriller that has just about anything any reader could ever desire: a dip into history, a treasure trove of paintings stolen by Nazis, a brave protagonist, a dreamy artist, a wicked villain, and a twist at every corner. It’s no wonder it’s been optioned by a well-known Hollywood personality. This book keeps one on their toes until the very last pages, rooting for the heroine to defeat the evil enchantress, and thus, to right a terrible wrong that, albeit generations old, threatens to survive in perpetuity.
Oh William! Elizabeth Strout
Elizabeth Strout’s main character Lucy struggles with her place in the world. After a difficult and traumatizing childhood she “seems” to have found her place, yet her struggles with relationships, whether with her family, other people, her first husband, or her daughters confirms her insistence that she is basically “invisible.” Strout’s style is spare and thoughtful which perfectly reflects the protagonist herself. With “Oh William!” she continues the tradition of providing thought-provoking tales that captivate despite their sluggish pace by being so incredibly real.
Vladimir. Julia May Jonas
A strange, seductive tale that captures the reader from the very first page, exploring the combustive relationship between love, lust, and language on the university campus. The protagonist is a 58-year-old female, tenured English professor. Her open marriage with her husband, and fellow faculty member, John is complicated when his dalliances crosse the sacred boundary between faculty and student. But that is only part of the intrigue as the protagonist herself nurses a serious obsession with another faculty member, the ‘Vladimir’ for which the book is named. The language of the novel is both erudite and delectable, perfectly reflective of a faculty of writers. The story is steamy, sexy, and downright strange at times.
Crossroads. Jonathan Franzen
I really enjoy Franzen’s writing as well as his lucid eye on normal people living normal lives in Middle America and his attempt to redefine the norm. That being said, I didn’t enjoy Crossroads. It was a good read but I found it tiresome. This was so shocking to me. I really expected to have more patience and admiration for the characters that Franzen lovingly and carefully creates. But I didn’t appreciate even one of them. In fact, I didn’t like them at all. Additionally, I found them all stuck in self-pity that became more and more annoying as I read on. It’s possible that the author has his finger on contemporary American culture, but it was a culture that although extremely human and real, was just too whiney to bear.
The Other Dr. Gilmer. Two Men, a Murder, and an Unlikely Fight for Justice. Benjamin Gilmer
Arriving in town to assume the position as a physician in a local medical practice, Benjamin Gilmer discovers that there was another doctor with exactly the same name, at the same practice. However from there the similarities end for that other doctor’s practice, career, and entire story had crashed and burned after he’d committed a horrific crime. Horrified to have to step into the shoes of this other doctor, Benjamin Gilmer decides that he must face his demons. He reaches out to visit the other Dr. Gilmer in prison. It is from here that the real story begins as the young Benjamin Gilmer discovers that all is not exactly as it seems. The book documents his efforts to restore the reputation and dignity of a man sentenced to rotting away in prison. It reminded me a great deal of Just Mercy and, in fact, Gilmer writes about being very motivated and inspired by Bryan Stephenson’s work. Benjamin Gilmer’s tale is fascinating, reading like a crime thriller, and shows him to be a compassionate and devoted individual intent on healing. Would love to have him as my family doctor.
Hell of a Book. Jason Mott
Brilliant, painful, inventive, and creative. Jason Mott’s Hell of a Book is simply stunning. The author engages the reader from the first page and holds him/her enthralled until the last. Two tales, one of an author on a book tour burying his demons through daydreams and bold denial of the more brutal facts of life; the other a young “black” boy who learns to disappear in order to have a chance at surviving a world where being black means being suspect and maybe even, a victim. Mott’s writing is pitch-perfect, using humor to pull in the reader before he breaks his/her heart. Exquisite.
The Promise. Damon Galgut
Galgut’s The Promise is an intricate family saga that spans generations and, taking place in Pretoria, South Africa, explores the change in policy toward black South Africans. One particular question regarding the right of a black individual to own property, and the willingness of a white person to acknowledge a legitimate claim, evolves as the decades pass and regimes change, but consistently prevents the members of the family from pulling together. Divided into sections, each devoted to one of the five members of the family, the author weaves an intricate and sometimes quite surprising tale. Most notable is the constant shifting of points of view, even mid-paragraph, which keeps the reader on his/her toes. I’ve actually never seen anything quite like this. While I found it confusing at the very beginning, I got used to it and was quite impressed by the breadth and depth it provided. No surprise that this was a 2021 Booker prize winner. They definitely appreciate sophisticated/border-line impossible to negotiate, language.
The Wise Women. Gina Sorell
Another great addition to mother-daughter literature. This tale of two grown women and a mother who gives advice for a living is a lovely read offering a bucket of homilies and an exposition on how they sometimes do, and sometimes don’t hold water. The characters are extremely likable and believable. The storyline is ultra-modern, incorporating such themes as start-ups, sustainable urban planning, the challenges of single parenting, and the ills of gentrification. I enjoyed Sorell’s first book, also an exploration of a mother-daughter relationship–albeit quite a different version, and will most definitely look for her next.
Tell me Everything. Erika Krouse
Brilliant, riveting, beautifully written story memoir describing the author’s work on a case concerning the supplying of girls to football recruits at a small college and the way it dovetails into her own life experience. Krouse’s “voice” is crystal clear, sometimes savvy and lucid, other times dripping with pain. This is one extraordinary story but it’s enhanced by what is as close to perfect writing as I can imagine. Not an easy read, but a real one with major repercussions. The case was one that led to the establishment of the protections afforded by Title IX.
Lessons in Chemistry. Bonnie Garmus
Garmus’s debut novel is a home run. This book about a female scientist in the 1950s who is a repeated victim of sexual discrimination due to contemporary society’s norms is charming, well-written, a page-turner, funny, and yes, sometimes terribly sad. The writer gets into the head of each character, even the dog, and provides an extremely engaging book made significant for its reminder of what it was like back then to be a woman who wanted to compete in positions traditionally held by men. Just wonderful.  I didn’t want it to end. I would be happy to follow this particular cast of characters on into another novel.
True Biz. Sara Novic
Wonderful story with extremely sympathetic characters. Novic’s novel focuses on the world of the deaf through the viewpoint of three children, the staff of a local School for the Deaf, and the hearing parents and individuals in the world they share. It is a fascinating look at a population that is, for the most part, neither seen (nor heard) by many. She explores the debate among the deaf (and hearing) population considering the use of cochlear implants, the viability of American Sign Language, and the mainstreaming of deaf children into the “hearing” population. Intermixed are lessons in the history of rights for the deaf in the US, the development and variation within Sign Languages across the world, and an actual dictionary of “signs.” It is extremely informative, thought-provoking, and simply a very strong read. I recommend it to all.
Crying in H-Mart. Michelle Zauner
This is a beautiful ode to a mother. Zauner’s story about her mother, the stormy relationship that segued into something both reverential and tragic once she (the mother) was diagnosed with terminal cancer, unfolds like an onion–each layer more precious and revelatory, than the last. The author uses food as a metaphor for how she and her mother shared, how that changed as her sickness worsened, and eventually for what she, the daughter, lost. Mother-daughter relationships are rarely simple. Zauner’s with her mother was no different. But it is characterized here by an especially sharp sense of awareness and need, a full-bodied attempt to realize the gift they shared before they ran out of time. This heart-breaking, exquisite gem records the loss many of us find difficult to put into words.
The Sea of Tranquility. Emily St. John Mandel
This book is just terrific. Although I remember liking Station Eleven, for some reason this one seemed to come closer to hitting the mark. That may just be because of our fresh experience with the pandemic. What clearly felt like science fiction back in 2014, now rings frighteningly real. The elements of the story, a cataclysmic, inexplicable event, an interesting cast of characters, the effects of a pandemic, and the search for, creation, and maintenance of habitable living space beyond our known world, are all woven together over the course of five hundred years–counting from 1912 to the future. The author’s ability to present speculation as fact is noteworthy. This book will definitely get you thinking.
Notes on an Execution. Danya Kukafka
This book is disturbing, alarming, and creepy but also thought-provoking and extremely engaging. It is the story of a young man on death row and is offered through both his perspective and that of several others who have either been affected by his actions or affected them. It is a story about being a mother, the responsibility that job entails, and what happens when one doesn’t fit the bill. The various narratives are brilliantly woven together, offering the reader a rich understanding of the depth of human distress and the suffering it can generate. This is not an easy book to read, but a very worthwhile one.
Immediate Family. Ashley Nelson Levy
Levy’s book is extremely interesting from the point of view of craft. The book is written in the second person. Her adopted brother’s request that she speak at his forthcoming wedding causes her to consider the bumpy road of their relationship, the fallout of her parents having years earlier decided to adopt a three-year-old child from the Far East, and her own frustration at being unable to bring her own child to the world. The author switches to the third person in order to fill in the back story, weaving it seamlessly into the unfurling of the main narrative. The story is more times painful than light but manages to convey a definite hope to individuals so very desperate to love and be loved; to parent and be parented. This is a special read.
The Paper Palace. Miranda Cowley Heller
The Paper Palace is the perfect read when you need to just step away from your own world and into someone else’s. From the third page, we’re confronted with the kind of dilemma that’s familiar, and for that reason so very compelling. What happens when there’s a bump in the road and you choose one path instead of another? What happens when you wonder if it’s not too late to go back and take the road you were on in the first place? Don’t worry about spoilers. The storyline is clear from the beginning. What’s special about this book is the way that Heller has created a gorgeous setting for this drama, an old family compound in the back woods of Cape Cod–the kind we’d all like to have experienced as a child and would love to return to annually as adults. She entwines nature, with its beauty and its violence, and the storyline–making one reflect and react to the other. Her writing is strong and evocative. Great summer read.
What My Bones Know:  A Memoir of Healing from Complex Trauma. Stephanie Foo
Foo’s memoir is striking in its honesty and its pain. She paints no pretty picture and doesn’t mince words regarding the life scars with which she deals. In particular, she describes Complex PTSD, that kind of PTSD which occurs after the repeated experience of dramatic events such as abuse or violence. She bravely tracks down and faces the source of her diagnosis, revealing years of abuse by her parents as well as the possible source of their behavior in the trauma commonly experienced by immigrants. This is a very difficult book to read as there’s no happy ending. Her experience can’t be wrapped up in a bow. Foo will have to deal with her CPTSD forever. Yet through interviews with professionals and a series of therapies, including that which eventually helped her to drop her anger to some degree, she offers an extraordinary, golden ray of hope for some kind of healing.
The Swimmers. Julia Otsuka

This is an absolutely gorgeous book. Otsuka’s language is just exquisite. What seems like a small subject, the life of a few regulars at a local swimming pool, turns into an elegy to her mother–one of the swimmers. No spoilers, but the book delves into subjects both shallow and deep (like the waters of the pool) in a way that makes each important, weighty, and significant. The reader is captivated from the first few lines by the author’s gorgeous sentences, by her articulate description of the mundane–whether describing a concrete crack, the stroke of a swimmer, or the experience of a person whose life has become one-dimensional. Otsuka spot on from start to finish, taking us from the heartbreak of a routine to the heartbreak of a life. 

Heavy. Kiese Laymon

Although I’d heard of this book, I’d steadily avoided it, figuring that it would be as “heavy” as its title. And it is. What I didn’t anticipate is the degree to which the author’s evocative and incisive language–and message–would be so very powerful. Actually, unforgettable. He writes in the second person. This is very unusual and, in most cases, hard to sustain. Laymon pulls it off beautifully. His words are directed at his mother and drip with pain, shame, and self-loathing; with the frustration of living in a society more liked to thwart African Americans than to encourage them; with the humiliation of being trapped in a body with which he can never make peace–alternative between obesity and anorexia; with his struggle with addiction. This personal narrative is one that will stay with me.
Once There Were Wolves. Charlotte McConaghy
This is an absolutely gorgeous novel. The story of personal trauma and the scars it leaves on the lives of twin sisters is both compelling and deeply moving. The author digs deep into the issues of abuse and abusers as well as the urgent need to protect our crumbling environment. (The latter was also an important theme in her book, Migrations, which I also adored.) Both are beautifully combined with brilliant character development, resulting in a profound, provocative, emotional reading experience. We cannot help but root for the sisters, the locals, the wolves, and the return of the forest. Just wonderful.
Convenience Store Woman. Sayaka Murata
Murata has written an exquisite study of how a woman who’s a bit different, who has never quite fit into society and probably never will, manages to find rhythm and meaning through her life as a worker at a local convenience store. The author combines pinpoint descriptions of the workings of the store, the maintenance of its inventory, management of its promotions, and the ins and outs of life behind the cash register, with an exploration of the protagonist’s inner thoughts, illustrating how they complement one another and add up not to the hobbled, hollow life one might expect but instead to one both well-greased, high-functioning, and full. The introduction of a quick fix, everything society and even the reader expect will turn things around for the protagonist, has a surprising fallout. Murata’s work belongs in the canon of recent work devoted to exploring the inner life of individuals that hover on the edges of societal norms. It’s a compact work that packs a significant punch.
Together We Will Go. J. Michael Straczynski
A very moving novel about twelve strangers who, embarking on a joint journey intended to end their lives, discover beauty and moments of happiness that demand a serious reconsideration. The author has scripted what feels like theater; each character is given a voice through text memos, voice recordings, and conversations. Tragic, moving, heart-warming, and even amusing, this work manages to capture both despair and its opposite. It’s an especially effective audiobook as an ensemble cast provides a lively–and breathing– rendition of this colorful, adventure-filled, sometimes happy, mostly poignant journey to an end. No spoiler here.
Horse. Geraldine Brooks
Brooks’ new novel incorporates the history of the antebellum South, American horse racing, and art history. It is primarily focused on the absolutely exquisite relationship between one of the most famous racehorses in the history of American racing, “Lexington,” (real), and his black groom (imagined). And indeed, it is this that makes the book so worth reading. Additional elements explored are the horrific status of being a slave, owned by a master–just like a prized horse, the genre of animal painting (an unusual subject), and modern scientific efforts to trace the skeletal composition of former species. Brooks covers a lot of ground! It helped that the characters from the various periods described (1850s into the present day) were believable and well fleshed out. Although I found her delineation of contemporary racism somewhat superficial, that of the pre-Civil War period was quite powerful. If you’re a Brooks fan, add it to your list.
The Netanyahus. Joshua Cohen
Smart, sassy, hysterically funny, and extremely creative. Joshua Cohen’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel offers an ingenious and unexpected hypothetical look at the infamous Netanyahu family. I found the start a bit slow-going. Cohen sets the scene in a somewhat plodding manner. But soon enough, he hits his stride and the rest of the novel crackles with sharp language, descriptive details that add color and beautifully help the reader envision each scene, and a script combining both full-blown historical theory and humdrum mundanities. This novel surprises at every turn.
Remarkably Bright Creatures. Shelby Van Pelt
This is an extremely enjoyable read with a wonderful something special: One of the characters is an octopus. No spoiler here. It’s obvious from the start. Van Pelt’s brilliant storyline, one in which said octopus, a particularly perspicacious creature, not only has a voice but connects with certain of the other characters in addition to trying to change their fate, is very engaging. I especially liked the way the title, which seems so obvious, is given a little twist. No spoiler here either. It’s nice to read a book and enjoy it! This is a debut novel and I think that some of the twists and turns were slightly overdone, but Van Pelt did a great job of creating characters (as well as the octopus) that are both empathetic and believable. I look forward to her next novel.

 

Violetta. Isabel Allende 

Another sweeping saga from Isabel Allende. I adored The House of the Spirits but somehow left Allende to the side afterward. Violetta is an interesting read for those interested in modern Chilean history but I found it to be far too much ‘telling’ and not nearly enough ‘showing.’ It is an epistolary text, from start to finish a letter written from the protagonist, Violetta, to someone whose identity is not revealed until much later in the novel. (No spoiler here!) I found that the author’s style diminished the powerful impact on the reader’s emotions that this heart-wrenching tale of an independent, strong woman in an impossible world deserved.

 

The Sweetness of Water. Nathan Hale

This is a beautiful story of a horrific chapter of American History. It describes the Reconstruction period following the Civil War. Black men and women were officially free but still persecuted, hunted down, discriminated against, tortured, and murdered. The story is based on two black brothers trying to make their way by working for paid wages, a kind family who believes in their new status, and another family who denies it. The novel is compelling, heartbreaking, beautiful, and horrific. The introduction of the sons of the two families was brilliant, enriching the story greatly. The very realistic, not rosy storyline, had terribly sad moments but was buoyed by a large dose of hope.

 

I’m Glad My Mom Died. Jennette McCurdy
ICarly star Jennette McMurdy turns a cold, unblinking eye on her relationship with her mother. The story she tells is raw, brutally honest, and quite disturbing. She makes quite clear that her mother both pushed her into an acting career she never wanted, initiating years of stress and robbing her of any normal childhood, and initiated an eating disorder with which she still struggles. Most compelling is the way her indictment of her mother, following her death and her own maturation, is interwoven with indications of her continued love. She doesn’t forgive but continues to remain faithful. I found this story, one emphasizing the power parents wield, terrifying.
Less is Lost. Andrew Sean Greer
Greer’s follow-up to his brilliant, Pulitzer Prize-winning, “Less,” is equally amusing, and features the same razor-sharp eye for detail and exquisitely evocative writing. The novelty of the first work, focusing on the novelist’s journey, is obviously missing from this one–in which he does much the same, this time in America instead of Europe. I also found the juxtaposition between the protagonist’s deep soul-searching and the hilarious conversations he has with characters he meets along the way somewhat jarring and executed less smoothly than in the first. That being said, if you haven’t read “Less,” the first novel, it’s a must; if you have, you won’t want to miss “Less is Lost.” Greer’s writing style and perspective on life, in this novel turned on many lesser-traveled parts of the United States as the protagonist embarks on a road tour in a beat-up RV with a borrowed dog, are not to be missed and cannot be forgotten. No one encapsulates life as brilliantly as Greer.
The House on Mango Street. Sandra Cisneros
Cisneros’ book is truly a collection of vignettes describing life in the building where she lived as a child. Added together, they offer a colorful picture of her neighborhood, the people who lived there, and their world experience as well as her own. The House on Mango Street is almost more poetry than prose. The young protagonist has an engaging voice. Her description of what goes on in her building and many of its colorful characters provides what feels like a genuine snapshot of the immigrant in American cities–whether viewed from age nine or ninety. The multiple challenges facing this population, as told from the child’s viewpoint, feel both colorful and raw. This work is what I would call urban poetry.
The Book of Form and Emptiness. Ruth Ozeki
Ruth Ozeki’s latest novel delves deep into human sorrow and the fall-out after significant trauma.  The storyline is offered from two perspectives, that of the young boy whose father dies in the first few pages and that of the book telling his story.  It’s complex but never confusing. Although, overstuffed with contemporary themes on top of the main family drama–the evils of capitalism, Zen Buddhism, contemporary politics, increasing violence in society, bullying, mental illness, and climate control–and excessively burdened by the depressed state of the mother and son, Ozeki’s fluid writing style and rich character development produce–as always– a profound reading experience. The reader is engaged from start to finish, rooting for the well-being of the characters until the very last page.
  
Memorial Drive. Natasha Trethewey
Natasha Trethewey’s Memorial Road describes growing up as a biracial child in Mississippi. Much of her reflections and shared memories focus on her relationship with her mother, a fact made bittersweet once the reader discovers the terrible tragedy that ended her life. Trethewey uses that brutal ending as the framework upon which to hang this story, creating a work heartbreaking and cripplingly sad while also, at times, quite beautiful. The author is a former American Poet Laureate, and her prose is just exquisite; the turns of phrase and choice of words are precise, elegant, and worth appreciating in and of themselves.
Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway: Bookmarked. Robin Black
Very few authors know how to write as beautifully as Robin Black. Whether turning to fiction, the craft of writing, or, in this case, an interpretation of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, she consistently produces engaging texts worthy of any serious reader. This exploration of Mrs. Dalloway artfully intertwines the author’s impressions and understanding of the classic novel as a text, her appreciation of Woolf as a fellow writer, and her empathy for the challenge of negotiating life experienced by the protagonist. This is a brave, personal, intellectual, and enlightening work that will be of interest not only to Woolf and Dalloway fans but also, to those who appreciate the unique ability to capture the human psyche on the printed page.
Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls. K Tira Madden
Madden offers us a brutally raw, sometimes raunchy, collection of essays bristling with crackerjack language that shocks in its explosive precision. The author shares her experience of growing up gay and biracial in conservative Boca Rato, a place far more suited to teenagers fitting the status quo and willing to toe the line. As much a poet as an essayist, her memoir cuts to the bone and keeps the reader on his/her toes.
One Hundred Saturdays: Stella Levi and the Search for a Lost World. Michael Frank
Michael Frank’s “One Hundred Saturdays” is somewhat reminiscent of “Tuesdays with Morrie” in format, telling a story through a series of conversations held–in this case–over one hundred days. Stella Levi’s stories provide significant historical testimony regarding the unique Jewish life that existed on the Greek island of Rhodes for centuries—in various manifestations—before abruptly coming to an end with the deportation of virtually all of the Jews to Auschwitz in 1944. This work of nonfiction feels colloquial. The charming banter between the interviewer, Frank, and his subject, Stella, engages the reader while also offering essential, little-known information about the loss of an entire community during the Holocaust. It’s an excellent supplement to the period scholarship.
The Poet X. Elizabeth Acevedo

 

Acevado’s Poet X captures the angst-ridden, exhilarating, and downright confusing experience of its teenage protagonist in verse, the slam poetry for which the author is known, coming together to form a vivid, riveting story. Although intended for a YA audience, the emotional impact of Acevado’s incisive language as it takes on body image, first love, and a strict mother (among other relevant subjects) will capture the attention of any adult. The fact that Xiomara (the main character), also happens to be a poet, searching for words to express exactly what she feels as she rides the roller coaster of her adolescent awakening, makes it all the stronger.
Demon Copperhead. Barbara Kingsolver
Loosely modeled on Dickens’ story of David Copperfield, a poor boy continuously hit with the hardest of challenges, making an impossible life even more impossible, Kingsolver’s novel vividly portrays the muck of a life experienced by its protagonist, Damon (known as Demon) Copperhead. Snugly situated deep in Appalachia, she digs into the heart of the American backwoods, offering unforgettable images of poverty, hunger, and the deadly costs of over-dependence on OxyContin. Copperhead’s desperate struggle to survive, against all odds, highlights the role of family and friends within this harsh landscape. It’s a brilliant read.
Trust. Hernan Diaz
Diaz’s book is alternately brilliant and confusing. While the beautiful writing drew me in immediately, the story of a financial genius and the woman he eventually married, intermingling with the history of finance in the United States, both engaging and informative, the shift within the book’s sections and narrators, mid-tome, had me struggling to get my bearings. After all, a reader seeks connection and meaning within any given work of fiction. When I finally did piece together the puzzle, I was incredibly impressed with the author’s idea and its conception. “Trust” is getting a lot of complimentary press, and for good reason. Not the simplest of reads but a fluid one and one perfect for people interested in the business world.
On the Rooftop. Margaret Wilkerson Sexton
Sexton’s On the Rooftop describes the story of a mother maintaining and nurturing a dream for her three daughters while they develop their own. The fact that this familiar tale is played out in a San Francisco neighborhood about to be the victim of gentrification and that the family is African American gives it additional layers of significance. The characters were well-developed, and the novel’s language was very engaging. I found there to be a bit of a disconnect between the heaviness of the subjects explored and the tone of the writing. All in all, still a very good read.
Fellowship Point. Alice Elliot Dark
This review will be controversial. I understand the literary merits of Dark’s Fellowship Point, but I didn’t enjoy reading it. This story of three very different women, located alternately in Philadelphia or Maine, hits all of the important talking points in women’s literature including motherhood, women’s rights, friendship, romance, family, and fidelity. However, wrapped up in a very long text written in language I found off-putting, reminiscent of earlier generations of literature and accordingly better received by those who prefer the classics, it comes off stiff and unemotional. I found it difficult to get through.
The Winners. Fredrik Backman
I am a huge fan of Backman’s Beartown and can happily report that part 3–The Winners–is, yes, a winner! Backman knows how to tell a story and competently turns a tragedy into a fable with an enormous beating heart. The Winners is as strong as the first two books in the trilogy about this hockey-crazed town, albeit somewhat predictable, as once acquainted with Backman’s methods, it’s relatively clear to see where he’s headed. He has the most uncanny way of tipping off the reader to the future–to what will happen to any given character by the end–while keeping the mystery intact. It’s quite an unusual talent! This takes nothing away from the enjoyment of reading his books and this lovely story about values, hope, despair, opportunity, and the lack thereof.  If you read the first two. Don’t miss this one.
Nora Goes Off Script. Anabel Monaghan
Nora Goes Off Script is a literary Rom-Com. Although not my typical genre, I found it a delight, offering a light read that is satisfying without verging toward dumb. The writing is both snappy and clever. The novel moves along at a rapid pace. I felt like I stepped onto a conveyer belt, swept forward, and kept in motion from start to finish. It has a surprising twist in the end that keeps the reader hooked. (No spoilers). It would make a great vacation read and was just a pleasure.
Mad Honey. Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Finney Boylan
Mad Honey is classic Jodi Picoult, offering a riveting read with teenage characters stuck in a tragic situation that demands they grow up very quickly. The tension in the novel is ratcheted up tenfold by the points of view. The reader is offered that of one of the teens and the mother of the other. The teen vs. adult perspectives is fascinating. The authors have also taken on a very complex, very timely subject, exploring both its emotional and technical aspects. No spoilers. The flow of the action both backward, tracing the source of the conflict, and forward, into the future, make for a seductive reading experience. 

The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida. Shenan Karunatilaka

Raw, viscous, honest, and revelatory, Karunatilaka’s The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida finds beauty in a sea of putrid ugliness. This is a violent but equally exquisite read. It exposes the underbelly of Sri Lanka, ripped apart by warring factions stepping over one another and vying for supremacy. The protagonist’s effort to discover what happened to him and protect those he loves is tightly intertwined with strife ripping apart his country. It’s a race to the finish.

 

Ms. Demeanor. Elinor Lipman

Elinor’s Lipman Ms. Demeanor is a pleasure to read. The author applies her signature great humor and sharp writing style to the unusual activity within a central Manhattan penthouse where a lawyer, an art handler, a dermatologist, and a Polish nanny all serendipitously cross paths with surprising and life-changing consequences. The story is quite trendy, incorporating Tik Tok, blogging, office and condo politics, high-power female professionals, and modern domestic arrangements. It’s a lot of fun from start to finish.

 

The Reading List. Sara Nisha Adams

Sara Nisha Adams’ The Reading List is perfect for those who love and consume books. The author intertwines the story of two main characters (and their families), both of whom have experienced some kind of loss, with classic literature. As the story progresses (mostly, and most naturally, within a public library), the latter informs, enriches, and enlightens the former’s everyday lives, inspiring hope–where there is very little–and offering a means to see things differently and arrive at a “more content” place. There is a blending of cultures here which adds a very welcome and enlightened contemporary note to the novel.

 

Signal Fires. Dani Shapiro

Shapiro’s Signal Fires is a fabulous book. It starts with a cataclysmic event that directly affects seven individuals living on one street in a small town. Unmoored for different reasons, each is hurled into a life they find difficult to negotiate. They struggle to find safe ground and some kind of happiness, or perhaps, purpose. Signal Fires connects our human experience with that of the stars, exploring how a moment can reverberate across a lifetime or even a galaxy. This is a beautifully written, very moving book. I’d give it 4.5 Stars if I could.

 

Olga Dies Dreaming. Xochitl Gonzalez

Olga, the protagonist of Gonzalez’s novel, is one to be remembered. She’s confident without being arrogant, warm-hearted while not being sappy, and is willing to admit when she’s unsure. Gonzalez has given her a bold voice that speaks up not only for herself but her generation. She and her brother Prieto, a public official with a secret, are left to make their way as Puerto Ricans in Brooklyn while their mother is off on the island making her own waves. Told in the shadow of Hurricane Maria that devastated the island, this novel moves beyond a contemporary tale about Millenials achieving success in the city to include commentary on the role of governments in outlying provinces, feminism, minority struggles, and political corruption. Beautifully written with language that sparkles.

 

Sam. Allegra Goodman

Sam is the story of a young girl growing up in a household fraught with emotional and financial difficulties. She discovers the world of climbing–walls, rocks, fences, trees–and it becomes an obsession that both elates and frustrates. Ultimately it offers her a way to deal with what she’s missing. Goodman does a brilliant job writing from the standpoint of a seven-year-old, then a pre-teen, and last a young woman in her late teens.

 

How a Person Should be. Sheila Heti

Reflective and yearning. Heti’s protagonist is writing a play she cannot finish, distracted by the search to discover–in her own life–how a person should be. Along the way, she will lose the things and people that are most valuable before she can earn them back. The novel reads like a memoir (composed of first-person reflections, transcripts of conversations, and email entries) and manages to be distressing, amusing, frightening, and meaningful in turn. It addresses major issues, including love, sex, friendship, gender roles, and the role of art in modern society. The writing is masterful and enticing and reads more like an epic poem than a novel.

 

We Do What We Do in the Dark. Michelle Hart

A thoughtful and provocative novel. The protagonist is a woman who forms an unusual relationship during her college years that affects her later on into her adulthood. years. and then goes on to consider its significance later on. about a woman contemplating a ratHart gives the protagonist a measured, almost plodding, voice which slows down the pace a little too much, but the writing is strong and the exploration of isolation is interesting.

 

All the Ugly and Wonderful Things. Bryn Greenwood

This is a gorgeous and very unusual love story, with beautifully fleshed-out characters, that challenges the reader’s conscience, making him/her reconsider certain rules we’ve been taught to consider hard fast. 13-year-old Wavy, seeking a way to survive within a dysfunctional family, including just getting to school, partners up with a tattooed, giant ex-con with an enormous heart. The story is narrated not only by Wavy and Kellen but also by several other characters equally trapped in a very tangled web. The author convincingly conveys the significance of devotion and commitment in establishing and maintaining true love. The audio was fantastic.

 

Fresh Water for Flowers. Valerie Perrin

This is an exquisite tale of love and loss, life and death, that packs an enormous emotional punch. Most of the story is told by the protagonist, the chief caretaker of a small cemetery in France. Yet the addition of a small cast of other characters deepens the story significantly. Layer by layer, the author provides the reader with an intricate and sophisticated story woven as tightly as a tapestry. I found the language beautiful but occasionally overly elaborate and detailed to the point where the pace lagged. This may have to do with the translation from the French original. Nevertheless, a simply gorgeous meditation on finding love in all shades and colors and the natural cycle of life.

 

The Escape Artist: The Man who Broke out of Auschwitz to Warn the World. Jonathan Freedland

Freedland has added an essential tome to the many already written about the Holocaust. Beautifully articulated, this book reads like a novel. The story of Rudolf Vrba, one of the few to escape Auschwitz and also one of the first, is riveting, horrifying, and unforgettable. Although it sometimes seems like there can’t possibly be anything new to know about this nightmarish concentration camp, Vrba’s testimony proves otherwise. Just as fascinating as the tales from within the camp are those from without. Freedland’s revelation of how the world received Vrba and fellow escapee Wetzler’s official version of what they’d seen and experienced is especially disturbing. The human desire not to believe the worst runs very deep.

 

The Sun Walks Down. Fiona McFarlane

A child wanders off into the Outback In Fiona McFarlane’s The Sun Walks Down, (no spoiler: This happens in the first pages), triggering a massive search. As the little boy wanders about in the dust, the reader becomes acquainted with the inhabitants of this tiny pocket of land in late nineteenth-century South Australia: the local priest, a sheepherder, and his men, an inspiring teacher, the town prostitute, a few “grandes dames” clinging to their European heritage, a policeman, an area patrolman, native aboriginal trackers, and a few girls tipping toward womanhood. The tensions between class and race, native and import, mature and still developing, are all explored in the pages of this gorgeous novel. The author’s elegy to the sun alone, its shades described with great precision from sunrise to sunset, is enough to take one’s breath away or, at least, encourage them to run to the nearest nail polish factory marketing team. Just beautiful. 

Heartburn. Nora Ephron.

Classic Ephron. Amusing, modern, relatable, and ultimately human. 

All the Broken Places. John Boyne

Fabulous continuation of Boyne’s The Boy with the Striped Pajamas. The author picks up on one of the lesser-explored, but still germane, characters in this first novel, a work intended for a Young Audience, and composed an intriguing, morally-challenging work that will leave the reader wondering what it means to sympathize with what he/she knows should be considered pure evil. As usual, Boyne’s writing is engaging, his story-telling spot on, engrossing the reader and hurling him/her into, alternately, a small town that would become more than famous in WWII Poland and modern-day London. I’m a huge fan of Boyne’s work. This one is one of my favorites. For the record, it’s not necessary to have read Part I. The novel stands on its own as well.

The Seed Keeper. Diane Wilson

The Seed Keeper joins other exemplary contemporary literature documenting the wrongs done to Native Americans for centuries. Following the life of a young native girl who was moved to a white foster home as a child, it addresses historical persecution and modern-day prejudice. Actual seeds (metaphors galore) passed through generations by the Navaho to secure their future, and in this case, carefully safeguarded by the protagonist Rosalie, are juxtaposed to their chemical counterparts (with all the incumbent issues of industrialization, strong-arming of big business and Native American subjugation) in a clever exposition of devastation and loss. Very moving novel. 

I Have Some Questions for you. Rebekka Makai

Rebecca Makai’s signature fluid storytelling bravely tackles the #metoo generation, exploring the systemic abuse of women and the refusal of our culture to address its multiple shades.  The protagonist, haunted by unanswered questions from her past that are interfering with her everyday present, returns to her old school grounds for a teaching position and ends up investigating a troubling, decades-old mystery. Along the way, she revisits her own adolescent experience and considers the way perspectives, and the way we see things, change over time. 

Age of Vice. Deepti Kapoor

Deepti Kapoor has written a brilliant indictment of Indian society. The characters in this novel simply pop off the page, enlivened by razor-sharp writing and a storyline both believable and unimaginable. Written with alternating narrators from different castes and socio-economic levels, this novel offers a rich and enlightening reading experience. It’s a literary feat akin to Vikram Seth’s Suitable Boy.

Hello Beautiful. Ann Napolitano

The story revolves around a family of four girls and directly references the four sisters featured in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. Into the mix comes Walter Waters, a young man with a sad family history who struggles with depression and suicidal thoughts. He is a particularly troubled character, unable to formulate the greater questions regarding his life, let alone find the answers. The four female characters are well fleshed out. I had trouble getting emotionally involved in the story, perhaps due to a great deal of telling at the expense of showing, and found that the overall sad tone and the pile of missed opportunities made for a frustrating reading experience. In some ways, it is the title, which says so much in the context of the novel, which I loved the most.

The Thread. Victoria Hislop

The Thread beautifully illuminates the tumultuous history of Thessaloniki in the 20th century, including the historic swap with Turkey of Muslims and Greeks —the local Muslims shipped off to Turkey, the Greeks in Turkey shipped off to Greece—and the very tragic experience of the Jews—stripped of their belongings, humiliated, and eventually shipped off to Auschwitz—most of them never to return. No spoilers. This is all part of the historical record. Hislop does a nice job creating a revelatory, historically accurate, and extremely readable work. It’s a good choice for those interested in the fascinating history of this beautiful seaside town and will make the reader want to visit.

The House of Fragile Things. James McAuley

A revelatory exploration of the Jewish elite in France from the time of the Dreyfus Affair through WWII. McAuley offers a narrative that makes the most illustrious art collectors, the Comondos, the Rothschilds, and the Ephrussis, come alive, highlighting the limits of what seemed like thorough assimilation. The experience of these families during a period when Jews were continually targets of persecution, despite their passion, fidelity, and continuous gifts to their native France, adds another important aspect to our knowledge of Modern French history.

These Impossible Things. Salma El-Wardany

Terrific and quite modern exploration of respecting the demands of tradition in choosing a life partner. Three professional Muslim women in London struggle to balance their faith, family, and love lives. The peril of choosing a partner for any reason except love is explored parallel to the cost of choosing love over family–both laden with potential for deep sadness and regret. El-Wardany’s novel is extremely engaging and addresses a complex subject in a very honest and believable manner.

Four Treasures of the Sky. Jenny Tinghui Zhang.

This beautiful and heartbreaking novel reveals a particularly ugly chapter in American history: the persecution of the Chinese on American soil by local Northwestern Americans in the late 19th century. Zhang’s protagonist endures a series of unbearable experiences, including forcible removal from her loving home, kidnapping, exportation to the US for nefarious means, and endless forms of victimization. She survives using the art of calligraphy, something she picked up along the way during one of her happier chapters. Well-crafted sentences, some absolutely exquisite, and the specific references to Chinese characters (their form and symbolism) lift a difficult story to a particularly high and poignant plain. Excellent historical fiction.

You Could Make this Place Beautiful. Maggie Smith

The fact that Maggie Smith is, first and foremost, a poet comes through loud and clear in this memoir. Her use of words is spare but pitch-perfect, the rhythm of her sentences seductive and powerful. This bold and honest work is so much more than the story of the break up of her marriage. It is an exploration of craft and voice and a meditation on self-realization and navigating life’s choices. I might just become a fan of poetry.

A Memoir of Love and Madness: Living with Bipolar Disorder. Rahla Xenopoulos

I adored Rahla Xenopoulos’ “A Memoir of Love and Madness.” Full disclosure: She’s my writing teacher and fabulous on all counts, personal and professional. But this record of her battle with bipolar disorder is a home run. It should be required reading for those interested in learning how the disorder manifests. But it also works as high literature. Her language leaps and flies off the page. Her sentences, each and every one, describe an entire world, taking the reader on one hell of a ride.

Maame. Jessica George.

Maame is a beautiful, coming-of-age, story. The protagonist is a young woman in her 20s whose family is from Ghana but lives in London. At the start of the book, she’s living with her father and serving as his primary caretaker. Her mother is back in Ghana. As the story unravels, she steps away from her family, with its incumbent responsibilities, and attempts to develop her own life. Things don’t go as well as she hopes, and she hits a major speed bump. Left struggling to regain her balance emotionally, socially, and professionally, she plows forward into the unknown. Thanks to the writer’s colorful and honest writing style, the reader becomes avidly attached to Maame and the other characters, rooting them on to the end.

Stay True. Hua Hsu

Although ostensibly the description of the sudden, violent, unexpected death of a friend, Stay True is much more. Hsu has written a beautiful elegy that also deeply considers questions of purpose, eventuality, and life’s serendipity, with which young adults struggle. His language is almost poetic; the emotional impact of his words, as he pulls them together slowly and with great effort–trying to digest his loss, is clear and extraordinarily forceful. Very moving. Very difficult.

Honey, Baby, Mine: A Mother and Daughter Talk Life, Death, Love (and Banana Pudding). Laura Dern.

I really enjoyed this “conversation” between actresses and mother-daughter duo Diane Ladd and Laura Dern. I listened to it on audio, which was a special treat. Ostensibly a ploy on Laura’s part to get her oxygen-deprived mother walking, the walks the two take together offer a golden opportunity to discuss everything from life to love, education to romance, raising children, and favorite recipes break neatly into chapters. This chronicle of lives lived, Diane’s starting in the South and Laura’s lived completely in Hollywood, is a beautiful ode to love.

The Covenant of Water. Abraham Verghese

Another glorious saga by Abraham Verghese. Following up on his extraordinary novel, Cutting for Stone, this author/medical doctor serves up one more gorgeous exposé of human nature, enriched by a cast of deeply developed characters–many of them–, complex storylines, beautifully intertwined, which pull together by the end, and descriptions of India’s politics, caste system, financial market, and landscape that rival those by the very best Indian authors.  This is a very long novel, and I’m convinced it could have been trimmed a bit, but a must for anyone ready to invest.
Yellowface, R.F. Kuang
This is a must-read for anyone in the publishing industry. Kuang’s protagonist, a struggling author, has stolen the draft of a manuscript from the body of her dead friend. Although the payoff is big, an agent, instant six-figure book contract, speaking engagements, and fame, the pressure to keep up the facade with further writing projects and fend off those who accuse her of cultural theft and stealing Athena’s work outright is enormous. The story is engaging, enlightening, and amusing. Great read.
Two She-Bears. Meir Shalev
Meir Shalev’s Two She-Bears offers a brutally honest picture of life in a small Israeli community in the earlier days of the country’s independence. Focusing on one family’s life throughout generations, it captures perspective on fidelity, marriage, child-rearing, and basic survival, on the experience of the pioneers and the new immigrants. While I enjoyed the descriptions of life in the ‘Moshava,’ Shalev’s writing is so clear and articulate, and enjoyed the character of the older woman through whose eyes we relive the past, I had a hard time connecting with some of the other characters, some of whom were downright diabolic and, I felt, flawed. This made for a more problematic read, keeping me from falling in love with the tale. Still, excellent picture of life in small-village Israel during its early days. It should be noted that there were some especially difficult scenes.
Afterlives. Abdulrazak Gurnah
Gurnah has written a fascinating story of family, love, survival, colonialism, and the importance of literacy set within East Africa between the wars. It offers an excellent history lesson for those readers less-versed in this part of the world, exposing yet another area (and its native people) that suffered the wars of dominating great Nations like Britain and Germany in the first half of the twentieth century. Nobel Prize Winner for Literature Gurnah creates beautiful characters that bring each page of the novel to life. As much a political-historical discourse as a love story.
The Postcard. Anne Besert
The Postcard is a deeply personal work. The author, Anne Besert, recounts the experience of learning (as an adult) that she is Jewish and had relatives that perished during the Holocaust. Her past had been kept from her because of her grandmother’s inability to deal with the fact that she was the sole survivor of her family. The book pivots around the postcard her mother received two decades before the tale begins, but expands into a dissertation on history, the peripatetic lives of the Jews in the early 20th century, and loss. Berest’s effort to piece together the puzzle presented by her mother by visiting places her family lived, figuring out the history of where they’ve lived–from Russia to Latvia to Palestine to Paris-,- enlisting a private investigator and interviewing family members and friends results in a work of great historical significance. This book should be on the list of anyone interested not only in the victims of the Holocaust but additionally in those individuals who somehow escaped or survived, as well as random witnesses–of which there were many.  It offers insights I have yet to come across in other similar works. 
The War Ends at Four. Rosanna Staffa
This is one beautiful book. Staffa’s protagonist leaves the place she has hesitantly called home for almost a decade, Minneapolis, to visit her gravely ill father in Milan. The trip to her beloved hometown, splendidly described in gorgeous strokes of her pen, inspires a reassessment of life choices regarding love, career, friends, and lifestyle. Staffa lays sentences one beside the other, like a builder using bricks to build a house. The cast of characters is small but rich, adding greatly to the protagonist’s experience, most especially, of her native city. This story (which feels like auto-fiction) is dense with emotion and well describes the struggle, incumbent to loss, for definition.
Joan is Okay. Weike Wang
How to mourn when you don’t have the tools? I adored this book about a quirky doctor of Chinese American heritage, working as an attending physician at a busy New York City hospital, whose father passes away. Joan is quite firmly a loner and chooses not to truly integrate within society beyond that of the hospital. When her father dies, Joan has no idea how to grieve. Hurling herself into work is not the answer, but it’s the only one she has until her boss steps in and forces her to go on bereavement leave. The arrival of both COVID-19 and her mother (freshly a widow) forces usually unemotional and evaluative Joan to reconsider family, neighbors professional associates, and her patients.
Pineapple Street. Jenny Jackson
Pineapple Street describes a chapter in the life of a privileged family living in Brooklyn Heights. The story centers around the three adult children and their spouses (some more, some less integrated into the fabric of the family) and their relationship to one of those enormous, historically-significant, magnificent brownstones.  Jackson does a very good idea capturing the character of a neighborhood and its residents. The book is a good summer read. 
The Bird Hotel. Joyce Maynard
The Bird Hotel is another wonderful story by Joyce Maynard. The story focuses on a woman who, having lost everything (no spoilers), runs away to a tiny town in Central America. There she stays at a local hotel run by an American expat.  Her main goals are to nurse her wounds and continue to exist. (Yes, the book is very difficult at times). The last thing she expects, with no Spanish, no purpose, and very little sense of belonging to anything, is to find a home. Maynard’s language is fluid, her storyline engaging, and her characters, both locals and foreigners, are colorful.  As an expat, it was fun to follow this description of an expat circulating and coping with foreign surroundings. This novel is a quality summer read. 
Lady Tan’s Circle of Women. Lisa See 
I appreciate Lisa See’s historical fiction. She consistently gives the reader a clear picture of women’s lives in China in the 15th century. This book focuses on the life of a girl (soon to become a wife) who trains as a doctor with a local midwife and woman of medicine but cannot officially function as one. As such, it offers interesting insights into women’s status and ability to contribute to their community during this early period. The author cleverly intertwines a personal story about one woman in one household, others with whom she is in contact, and an intrigue regarding succession and the importance of bearing sons, resulting in a clever and informative read.
The Marriage Portrait. Maggie O’Farrell
Beautifully written, perfectly constructed, suspenseful, and evocative. O’Farrell’s novel is an excellent example of how historical fiction can be literary. Well-researched and intended to illustrate the phenomenon of uxoricide, The Marriage Portrait goes so much further. It’s the story of one woman’s efforts to be more at a time when it was safest to be less. Lucrezia is married off far too young, but the reader learns, through a timeline that weaves back and forth through time, that that is only the beginning of her troubles. Fabulous read.
Places We Left Behind. Jennifer Lang

Emotional, convincing, transporting. Lang’s words, arranged in poetry, prose, punctuation, and equation, describe her tumultuous journey across the world and back again as she struggles to find her place and maintain her marriage. The experiences she recounts are relatable as is but arranged as they are, like newsflashes, capturing impromptu thoughts or reflections, hesitations, and considerations, pack a strong punch. Having experienced something similar, falling in love with someone whose heart is across the world and demanded I uproot, I found them spot on.

By Accident. Joanne Greene

This memoir packs a punch. From the first line, we are hurled head-first into the accident that changed the author’s life. And it’s by no means downhill from there. The amount of sickness and death she faces afterward, among her loved ones, might have buried others. Instead, Greene manages to extract strength from her experiences and let them instruct her on an alternative way of life: adopting a slower pace and taking more time to appreciate and embrace all she’s been given. Lovely underlying message for the reader.

Little Monsters. Adrienne Brodeur

Brodeur writes about a family living in Cape Cod that was hobbled by a tragedy years earlier and has, a generation later, become dysfunctional. They’re just barely holding on. Daughter Abby is a talented artist with an old secret and now a new one. Brother Ken, who has crafted a perfect life and has major political aspirations, is full of rage. Their father, Adam, an aging bi-polar marine biologist, is terrified of aging. The author’s descriptions, whether of marine life, esp. whales, the Cape, or art and its making, are both intricate and amazing. They bog down the book in the middle, but the strong, intriguing storyline keeps the reader going through to the end. 

The Island of Missing Trees. Elif Shafak

Shafak’s novel offers a fascinating look at Cyprus, caught between Greek and Turkish cultures. The Romeo and Juliet love story, captured beautifully in the two main characters, highlights the inability of the two local populations to truly live in peace during the period leading up to the conflict in 1974 that decimated the population. The author’s attempt to interweave a fig tree into the plot as an anthropomorphic witness, even to the extent of giving it a voice, seemed a bit forced (especially when summarizing the conflict’s fallout). Nevertheless, it was conceptually a good idea as it emphasized the significance of roots, silent witnesses, and the ability to be transported and continue to thrive.

Tom Lake. Ann Patchett

Tom Lake beautifully illustrates Ann Patchett’s ability to create compelling narratives and memorable characters. The story starts during the pandemic when Lara’s three young daughters ask their mother to tell them about her past as an aspiring actress. They’re especially eager to hear about a famous actor who they believe played a major role in their mother’s life. What follows, instead, is an elegiac exploration of the dreams and hopes of youth. Patchett intertwines the past with the present, going back and forth as she weaves a quiet story with an enormous heart. Those interested in theater will find it particularly interesting. The author develops fascinating parallels between Wilder’s “Our Town,” the play that marked the beginning of Lara’s theatrical career, and the contemporary story of the Nelson family. 

Love Marriage. Monica Ali

Love Marriage: A provocative title from the start. In this novel, Ali questions what that means and whether such a thing exists. Yasmin is about to marry Joe. She’s concerned about their families’ cultural differences. She doesn’t anticipate these might be the least of their issues. What starts innocently as a march toward the altar, ends up being a deep search into self-realization. Sharp writing, an engaging storyline that moves at a good pace, and interesting characters (including two memorable mothers-in-law-to-be) make for an excellent read.

Necessary Troubles. Drew Gilpin Faust
Necessary Troubles, written by Drew Gilpin Faust, is an extraordinary walk through the 1950s and 60s. Faust offers a personal consideration of a period that saw enormous change in the status of women and black Americans and the price that such change exacted. Her insights, as an intelligent and well-educated white woman raised in the South who purposefully chose to distance herself from the grim realities of segregation and the limited expectations of women, are beautifully collected into a compelling argument for civil engagement. Faust practices what she preaches, describing a life devoted to speaking up and warning against what Dr. Martin Luther King described as  “the appalling silence of good people.”
The Whispers. Ashley Audrain
Audrain dares to write about the kinds of mothers we don’t want to believe exist, the ambivalent ones– or worse, those who simply can’t stand being mothers. That takes a lot of guts. Many readers aren’t comfortable with this “image” of motherhood, denying that such a thing exists. I learned this after publishing my own novel on mothers and daughters. Certain readers couldn’t swallow that some women aren’t meant to be mothers. The story in “The Whispers” focuses on four women, each undergoing a personal trauma affecting their children/and/or spouse, exploring their deepest desires. The book feels like a “thriller,” as did her first, “The Push.” There, too, she chose to depict an alternate version of motherhood. Extremely interesting.
The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store. James McBride

McBride’s The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store is a compelling read, rich with deeply explored characters and laced with historical verity. It focuses on Pottstown, PA, where blacks, Jews, Italians, and those with “so-called” Mayflower roots share land, a grocery store, and water. The delicate groups teetering on the edge of imminent combustion. The author’s lengthy and minutely detailed manner of introducing each new character (and following them as they develop) bogged down the reading. However, McBride’s prose is like poetry; each word, even when stacked up in tall piles, is well-considered and significant. And, of course, draped over a very original story that explores race relations, small-town mid-19th century life, and the experience of both new immigrants and locals, it makes for a very worthy and enlightening read.

 

Everything/Nothing/Someone. Alice Carriere 

Alice Carriere’s story about growing up with mother Jennifer Bartlett, a world-renowned American artist quite involved in her career, and a wildly inappropriate European actor will make the hair on any reader’s arms stand on end. It is chaotic and insane, chockful of events too painful to consider, yet whose tells is executed with incisive, brilliant language that makes it the horror sizzle on the page. On the back of her family saga, the author’s description of a dissociative disorder almost seems mild. Yes, the whole picture is just that dramatic! While Carriere’s tale frequently made me cringe, I stuck with it. I figured that if she could survive to tell her tale, I could stick with it to the end. The trip was wild but worthwhile.

 

 Same Time Next Summer. Annabel Monaghan

Annabel Monaghan’s newest book has an engaging storyline, ultra-believable characters, and a beating heart. It is a solid read about former lovers meeting up and considering what went wrong. It didn’t capture the sparkle of Monaghan’s debut novel, “Nora Goes Off Script,” and was a bit predictable. Still, it’s a great choice for those looking for a hopeful, upbeat tale featuring genuine, real-to-life dialogue.

 

The Monster of Florence: A True Story. Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi

An innocent family relocation to the Tuscan countryside leads to the resurrection of an unsolved crime that continues to perplex the long-term residents of Florence. Thriller writer Douglas Preston teams up with local journalist Marlo Prezi to look into the gruesome crime he has discovered that occurred right in the backyard of his Italian dream villa. Great exposė.

 

The Art Thief: A True Story of Love, Crime and a Dangerous Obsession. Michael Finkel

This story about one of the most successful (maybe the most successful) art thieves of all time reads like a juicy mystery. Michael Finkel’s exploration of the protagonist, dipping deeply into the motivation behind his obsession with stealing the artwork he coveted and his sensitive articulations of each work itself, is extremely engaging. Well-researched and well-written, as much a story of passion as of crime, this book will appeal to a range of readers—history, art, and who-done-it hounds!
Master, Slave, Husband, Wife: An Epic Journey from Slavery to Freedom. Ilyoo Woo
The extraordinary tale of an African American couple that, disguised as mistress and slave, fled the South in the 1840s offers one more chapter in the history of African American oppression. Beautifully written and extremely compelling, the work reads like a novel and stuns by virtue of its basis on real facts. The original escape is only part of the story and, in addition, reveals a great deal about the challenges that awaited such escapees once they’d made it North. The details regarding the Fugitive Slave Act of 1950, a kind of compromise made by the North enabling escaped slaves to be hunted down once they’d arrived North and returned to the South, are fascinating. This work offers an excellent history lesson but is, as expected, quite a difficult read.
How to Love Your Daughter. Hila Blum
This is the honest and crippling story of a mother-daughter relationship that has gone terribly awry due to the unfortunate effect of the best intentions. Parenting is riddled with pitfalls, moments when words meant to help only hurt, and actions meant to assist blow up into misunderstandings. Parenting is a minefield, taken on by many without understanding the difficulty of its navigation and the challenges to success. Hila Blum drapes this reality over the story of one mother and her daughter. Although heartbreaking in many ways, its raw portrayal is compelling and even offers glimmers of hope.
Astor: The Rise and Fall of an American Fortune. Anderson Cooper
I adored Anderson Cooper’s book about his mother, Gloria Vanderbilt, and found this one about the infamous Astor family equally interesting and well-written. It’s an excellent addition to the history of America, New York City, and famous American dynasties. Cooper’s exploration of this extremely wealthy family does not hold back, following them from their rise to fame to more difficult days while continually emphasizing the significant role they played in creating the New York City we know today.
The Berry Pickers. Amanda Peters
The Berry Pickers is a gorgeous depiction of simple lives made complicated. It’s about a family of Native Americans from Nova Scotia that experiences a great loss before a chain of others. It’s about another family in Maine that suffers from a past about which they do not speak. These two storylines, each narrated by a child from each family, run the course of the novel, tantalizing the reader who desperately wants them to intersect. The novel is full of beautiful sentences woven together to describe the emotional journeys these families travel. This was a favorite.
Roman Stories. Jhumpa Lahiri
Jhumpa Lahiri has once again created a gorgeous piece of work, a collection of short stories devoted to various characters living in or wandering the streets of Rome–intersecting with its locals. Many characters come from elsewhere, migrating to Rome and eventually making it their home. Their relationship with the city they adopted accordingly colors their experience. Although sometimes going back to the individuals’ childhood, for the most part, it captures them later in life, once their children have moved on, sometimes when they’ve been left alone through divorce or death. In all of the stories, the city of Rome, its monuments, and its climate play a major role, coloring not only the sky and stony surfaces but also the mood and daily life of the characters.
We Must Not Think of Ourselves. Lauren Grodstein
Grodstein’s novel, exploring life in the Warsaw Ghetto is based on actual testimony from Jews who lived there from 1940 onward. It is narrated by a local English teacher tasked with interviewing various ghetto residents to build a historical record. The patchwork of experiences that emerges charmingly reflects a range of English-language skills, from broken to relatively fluent. This construction makes for a vivid read. The characters’ stories included in this project, Operation Oneg Shabbat, eventually intertwine, resulting in a heart-wrenching tale of love and loss.

Small Things Like These, Claire Keegan

“Small Things Like These” is a gorgeous novella with a big punch. Using the same short-form format as her previous work, Claire Keegan reminds the reader that less is more. This work features a protagonist, orphaned and then raised by a kindly woman, considering–years later– the significance of that extraordinary gift of kindness. It’s just an exquisite work.

Wellness. Nathan Hill

With “Wellness,” Nathan Hill again offers an ultra-contemporary novel that devotes equal time to its main characters as the world they live in. The story of a man and a woman who discover something as simple as love becomes inextricably complicated by the modern obsession with algorithms. The novel explores whether scientific developments and theories can address the most basic mechanics of human relationships. This is a long story with very strong writing, but it is weighed down by the author’s insistence on exploring analytics at the expense of the humans who consult them for answers.

More. A Memoir of an Open Marriage. Molly Roden Winter

This memoir was just what I needed: amusing, honest, and racy. The author’s tale of the open marriage she agrees to at the suggestion of her husband incorporates a deep consideration of partnership, marriage, the role of romance, and sexual relations. In the end, it’s an elegy to the very human need for attention and love.

The Bee Sting. Paul Murray

Paul Murray’s The Bee Sting is an absolutely gorgeous novel–the writing is so precise the reader can “taste” the scenes described. The story of one family and the complicated mechanics is told in alternating voices: the father’s, the mother’s, the daughter’s, and the son’s. The strands join to reveal the underbelly of its original formation, its evolution, and its tentative continuation. Murray joins other great literary talents known for capturing contemporary society, such as Nathan Hill and Jonathan Franzen, illuminating life in Ireland in a way rarely achieved elsewhere.

Slaughterhouse-Five. Kurt Vonnegut

Vonnegut is as brilliant now as he was when he originally wrote Slaughterhouse-Five. His incisive descriptions of war are extremely timely–some things never change–and his writing is just edible. The protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, flips back and forth through the years, cleverly using time travel to relieve the tension of the narrative. Along the way he meets characters that are colorful, amusing, and unforgettable.

The Celebrants. Steven Rowley

The Celebrants offers a somewhat morbid but amazingly entertaining take on The Big Chill. Following the death of a friend a group of old friends gets together to celebrate their lives. Secrets, dreams, terrible disappointments and horrifying realities emerge. Rowley is a talented writer. He knows how to turn and phrase and hold his audience. The novel’s strength is in the characterization not of any given person in the large cast, but instead, of friendship.

Hope. Andrew Ridker

Ridker has put his finger directly on the pulse of contemporary family life. The characters in the family described have everything yet seek more. From the first page, when presented with the ultimate normal family, the reader understands that a lot more is going on beneath the surface. Ridker busts the image of perfect, redefining what makes people tick and how and where they seek hope. It’s a fabulous read and a great lesson on making assumptions.

Family Meal. Bryan Washington

Washington has written another exquisite novel about a group of men clawing their way through past disappointments, tragedies, and entanglements to find love and hope. The main character has suffered a terrible loss. He returns to his hometown and encounters individuals from his past with whom he shares a stormy history. Washington peppers this emotional tale with absolutely gorgeous descriptions of food, love, and sex, which are unforgettable. His writing is as smooth as butter. I’m a fan.

The Wishing Game. Meg Shaffer

The Wishing Game has a predictable storyline, but it’s made more interesting by the complexity of the burden of the past carried by the various characters. The main protagonist, for example, wants to foster a young boy with whom she has been in contact and for whom she has great affection. Unfortunately, she’s financially quite unstable and is, accordingly, ineligible. The sudden opportunity to enter a contest with a monetary prize, sponsored by none other than the author of a series of books she loved as a child, gives her hope and reminds her that many people have difficult pasts that pose obstacles to achieving dreams.

Hard by a Great River. Leo Vardiashvili

Hard by a Great Forest is simply one spectacular novel. It’s the story of one family’s effort to survive after making an unbearable sacrifice years earlier. The trip back to their native Georgia, heavily ensconced in a battle to free itself from the former Soviet rule, is marked by riddles, mystery, and enormous emotional pain. Vardiashvili sets a cast of beautifully developed, engaging characters against the backdrop of a physically gorgeous but politically drowning country. Just a fabulous, emotional read–informative and teaches a bit about Georgia to those who don’t know its history.