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.
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
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 listened to her story on audiobook and highly recommend it. Ms. Davis’ voice is simply captivating and makes what might have been a familiar tale or hardship to success, riveting.
The Personal Librarian tells the story of a black woman who, passing as white, and ONLY because she passed as white, became one of the most significant and determining figures in New York City cultural circles at the beginning of the twentieth century. It is based on the real-life of Belle de Costa Green, known best for her role as the long-term director of the Morgan Library. Belle’s mother had earlier on decided that Belle, and many of her siblings, would have a better chance of succeeding if they took advantage of their fair skin tone. This decision is something addressed repeatedly by Belle as she makes her way, circulating with the likes of J.P. Morgan and Bernard Berenson, enjoying a very privileged lifestyle. The author makes clear that Belle knew that everything would change were she to reveal her true skin color. The book offers an excellent exposé on the difficulties for the black American population after the first blush of Reconstruction, the role of race in determining opportunity, and the impossible weight of carrying a false identity over the course of a lifetime.
Nightcrawling. Leila Mottley
Mottley’s “Nightcrawling” uses Oakland as the appropriately gritty, desperate background to the tale of a family on the verge of falling to pieces. Seventeen-year-old Kiara, with her parents out of the picture and her brother off chasing the California dream, is left to hold together not only her own life but that of a young boy who has been abandoned by a neighbor. Mottley doesn’t spare the reader, describing her descent into the street (no spoiler) with visceral, graphically vivid language–never prettifying a picture that is about as ugly as they come. What lifts this heart-breaking tale is a main character with an enormous capacity for love and a spirit that refuses to be broken. I could neither put this book down nor stop rooting for Kiara to figure her way out of a terrible predicament. A riveting read.
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.