Books, Favorite Reads, Favorite Reads in the Time of COVID-19, Fiction, MillersTime Readers Favorite Books, Nonfiction, Recent Favorite Reads
Here are the books that 37 MillersTime readers have identified as recent favorites, 54% fiction, 46% nonfiction.
Grant by Ron Chernow (NF). Chernow writes an excellent biography of Grant. Grant was an interesting person – not too scholarly, a masterful military strategist, an honest person, not necessarily primed to be a US President, and at many times too innocent. Grant has been described as the most underrated President, and that is probably correct. He was an honest person, but surrounded by corruption during his presidency and stuck with friends even when they were not honest. He fought for the rights of the Southern blacks and fought hard against the Ku Klux Klan during Reconstruction. The biography is excellent in portraying the good and the less good and brings to life a man who was probably underrated. I highly recommend the book.
The Splendid and the Vile by EriK Larson (NF). This latest Larson biography is about Winston Churchill in his first year of Prime Minister in the UK. We know the story – he supplanted Neville Chamberlain as PM, the year was a rough one with the Battle of Britain, and the UK survived this first year. What makes the book so interesting is Larson’s extensive use of Jock Colville’s diaries and the diaries of Mary Churchill to give the book a more personal feel and texture. Larson writes so well, and this is a book worth reading as an interesting perspective on that year.
The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson (NF) is a well written and researched book on the Great Migration which took place between roughly 1917 to 1975 as blacks migrated from various parts of the South to northern and western cities looking for between opportunities. In particular, the books traces the lives of three migrants— Ida Mae Brandon Gladney who migrated in 1937 from Mississippi to Chicago; George Swanson Starling who migrated in 1945 from Florida to NYC; and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster who migrated in 1953 From Louisiana to Los Angeles. She really got to know these three individuals and around and through them told the amazing story of migrants.
A Game of Birds and Wolves by Simon Parkin (NF). This is a fascinating and largely unknown story of a “for real” board game “played” at Derby House in Liverpool during WWII. In the early years the efforts focused on how the Royal Navy could have more success against the U-boats (the wolves) which were destroying the Merchant ships bringing badly needed food and supplies into the British Isles in the Battle of the Atlantic. (Have You ever played the game Battleship? This was the origin of the game). The Birds were the WRENS, an auxiliary unit of the Royal Navy of very young but very bright women who helped devise, improve and run the games. Navy officers would spend time at Derby House And play the games to learn new strategies to combat the U-boats. Because of the success of these games in Navy training, Britain essentially won the Battle of the Atlantic by early 1943 and the U-boats were withdrawn. The book is actually more about Gilbert Roberts who designed the games and masterminded the effort. The book looks at a largely unknown but very successful effort in Britain’s war efforts.. . . and largely done by women!
Countdown 1945 by Chris Wallace (NF) is a wonderful book recounting the 116 days between when Harry Truman became President, the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima, and the beginning of the atomic age. While we all know the basic story, in this book you learn more about the scientists, the military, the President, the incredible co-operation among the various parties, the absolute precision among the various parties, the angst around whether to drop the bomb or not, and ultimately the dropping of the bomb.
Reading seems to go to the bottom of my “to do” every day.
I’m not sure where the time goes, although there is an increasing number of on-line lectures and performances that attract us, and thanks to my daughter I’ve become a podcast listener as well.
I’m still slowly working my way through These Truths by Jill Lepore (NF), which I am enjoying but which seems best in short bursts. I then discovered her podcast, which has become another time sink.
Although I have worked part time and been busy with online meetings. I definitely have been escaping the virus and political turmoil by reading a lot. I especially liked the following two books:
A Race to Splendor by Ciji Ware (HF).This is a wonderful historical fiction about two woman architects in the early 1900’s. They rebuild two famous hotels after the devastating 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire.
Women of a Dangerous Age by Fanny Blake (F) .A story of two middle age women starting over.
I”m currently two-thirds of the way through The Hours by Michael Cunningham (F), and liking it. (It was a bit hard to follow at first). Drawing inspiration from the life, and death, of Virginia Woolf, the author artfully weaves together the stories of three women to reveal their complicated, interior lives. (Ed. It won the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the 1999 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction).
I enjoyed Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday (F). It follows a modern-day “Alice” down a rabbit hole when she enters a relationship with a man 30 years her senior. To some extent, based on the author’s affair with Philip Roth.
Reading (and listening) more to non-fiction, specifically to understand my views on racism. Need to open my eyes to my “hidden” biases. Read How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram Kendi (NF). It is a tough read but very enlightening. Also rereading White Fragility, Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo (NF).
Also found these to be good reads:
The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World by Melinda Gates (NF). Her work with the Gates Foundation to lift up women worldwide to bring economic and health security. It is not a typical feminist approach but her strength as an advocate based on her personal awareness from her global travels to the needy.
The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell by Robert Dugoni (F): Story of young boy bullied due to his physical disability, ocular albinism, which makes his eyes red. it is a very inspiring and moving read.
David P. Stang:
The Gift Of Years: Growing Older Gracefully by Joan Chittister (NF). Written by a Benedictine nun, spiritual teacher, and executive director of Benetvision, a resource and research Center for contemporary spirituality in Erie, Pennsylvania. Her book contains 40, three to five to page essays on dimensions of consciousness experienced by geriatrics. She begins each essay with a quotation, then describes the particular experience or perception explaining both the defeatist, hopeless way of interpreting the topic, but also provides a far more constructive, optimistic and inspiring interpretation. My friend Rick Miller gave me the book and every night I read at least one of the little chapters before going to bed. I’ve nearly completed my second reading of her entire book. That before bed, nightly experience reminds me of my mother reading me nursery stories before I fell asleep at night as a small child. In her Gift Of Years Joan Chittister has become a substitute for my long deceased mother. As I experience it, Joan Chittister’s written words become spoken words of a compassionate mother telling her sleepy-eyed octoctogenarian son that this is a time of life about which he should become most cheerful.
Biography of Silence by Pablo d’Ors (NF) is all about the phenomenology of meditation. Phenomenology is the study of structures of consciousness as experienced from the first-person point of view. The central structure of an experience is its intentionality, its being directed toward something, as it is an experience of or about some object. Applying this dimension of consciousness to the writing of Biography of Silence d’Ors makes phenomenological reference to all the ideas that pop into a person’s head while meditating. D’Ors is concomitantly a Spanish Catholic priest and Zen meditator. Among other things his book on meditation teaches us is how to notice but ignore all of these thoughts that pop into our consciousness when we are seeking to be silently receptive to a greater reality. His precisely described perceptions of what he experiences while meditating are awe inspiring.
I’ve probably been reading a bit more during this time of Covid than before. Two books that I have read and enjoyed in recent months are:
The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West by David McCullough (NF). It is the story of the founding of Marietta Ohio – the first settlement in the northwest territory in 1788 by the Ohio Company.
Nothing Like It in the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad 1863-1869 by Stephen Ambrose (NF). I wanted to read this book to give me more background information for our transcontinental railroad exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History where I volunteer. But I especially wanted to read it prior to our train trip across America, which will include part of the original transcontinental railroad route from Sacramento to Omaha. Building that railroad, especially through the sierra Nevada mountains, was an engineering marvel, and Ambrose tells the story in a very engaging way.
Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner (F), but seems pretty close to his real family history: How could I have missed this gem (not a little gem, a generous epic of a book) before? But now, with more time for leisurely reading, I have immersed myself in the life of the characters and of the land. And where else could I find such sentences as “She instructed me as out of bitter personal experience, she brooded along the edges of my childhood like someone living out a long Tennysonian regret. *** Gentility is inherited through the female line like hemophilia, and is all but incurable.”
Here are six very different reads from me in the last four months, each of them I highly recommend for various reasons.
Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson (NF). This much-anticipated book by the author of the prize winning The Warmth of Other Suns won’t disappoint. It is a deeply researched, anecdote-illustrated, clear-eyed discussion of race and class in America that puts systemic discrimination in this country into a global framework. It makes a strong case of the similarities to the ancient caste system of India and the Nazi-created caste system for Jews. (One of the many fascinating insights is that Nazi officials came to the US to study our laws concerning racial separation, as they designed their Nuremberg Laws.)
The book reads a bit like sociology textbook, one I would have happily read in my college days. It is engagingly written and her argument adds a new depth and understanding to our country’s system of racial injustice. It offers many examples and insights that at times I found shocking. It is a must read.
Death in Her Hands by Ottessa Moshfegh (F). Over the past several compilations of ‘best reads” I have recommended this author’s previous two award winning novels (Eileen and My Year of Rest and Relaxation) by this new writer. Each of her books is provocative, a little off-beat, with consistently superb writing.
Her latest is no exception. Death in Her Hands tells a haunting story about an elderly woman living alone who stumbles on a possible murder. Her suppositions about this possible murder grow into a full-blown obsession as she pursues solving the mystery to the point where she looses her grip on the real world. It’s a fascinating and well-paced and in some ways reminiscent of Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, which I also highly recommend,
Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir by Natasha Trethewey (NF). This book, by the African-American, Pulitzer Prize winning poet who served as United States Poet Laureate in 2012 and 2013, is a deeply personal and chilling memoir of her mother, who was brutally murdered by her second husband. Trethewey tells her own story as a mixed-race child in Mississippi history in the deeply segregated South. Her insight is sharp and her voice clear as she explores the loss and grief in trying to understand her mother’s tragic life. The writing is sensitive and engaging, the story of racism and abuse riveting. You won’t want to put this down.
Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell (F). I recommend this book highly but cautiously. I strongly urge you to read ABOUT this book, before you read it. Hamnet (another spelling of “Hamlet”) is a fictional portrayal based on little known facts of the death of Shakespeare’s son. It does not focus only on his play “Hamlet” (written four years after the child’s death) but instead it is an imagined full-blown story of Shakespeare’s wife and family, their life and times (the 1580’s) and the plague that killed their 11-year old boy. None of the characters have their historical names (other than Hamnet and his twin sister Judith), which I found confusing. But it’s well worth struggling through that in this splendidly told story. It’s a beautiful book, superbly written, a tale of family and loss.
The Yield: A Novel by Tara June Winch (F). This book is written by an Aboriginal author and it tells the story of a young woman returning to her native home after the death of her grandfather, Albert Goondiwindi, who was determined to pass on the language of his people to those he would leave behind.
The book is divided into alternating chapters of his explanations of native wordsand phrases, the reactions of the granddaughter who has returned home from London for the first time in 10 years, and others with critical pieces of the story to tell. Woven into this tale is the news that his native place is to be repossessed by a mining company and the granddaughter’s attempts to save their land. This is essentially a story of a dispossessed culture and the attempts to reclaim it. It’s a moving, well-written, and very real story.
Only Woman in the Room by Marie Benedict (HF.) Even when I startedthis book, I wondered why I had chosen it, even as a “summer” read. But after the first ten pages I was hooked on the story of life of the famous film star – the Austrian-born Hedy Lamarr (ne: Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler) – the glamorous Hollywood actor who began er career in 1938. My mother was an admirer.
The book deftly tells the story of an early marriage to an Austrian arms dealer very riendly with senor Nazi officials (she was of Jewish heritage), and how she became privy to many of the Third Reich’s plans while at her husband’s side. She fled him and his world and ended up in Hollywood where she was featured in 30 films in an acting career spanned nearly three decades. It also details how she struggled to use her scientific knowledge, and what she had learned about Nazi plans, to help the war effort against the Nazis by co-developing a radio guidance system for allied torpedoes. (This involved developing technology that led to both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth innovations.)
This is a great story and an engaging summer read.
I have been doing lots of reading the last few months, and actually I have enjoyed some good ones so here are a few for your list.
The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd (HF). I have loved Sue Monk Kidd’s previous books and was anxious to read this, though the subject was questionable, imagining Jesus having a wife in the years before he was known as a prophet in the Galilee. The book did not disappoint, being beautifully written and focusing on the character of Ana, as she uses her cunning and wit to navigate a life of intrigue, romance, and treachery in the 1st century. It is a masterpiece of historical fiction reminiscent of The Red Tent.
All Adults Here by Emma Straub (F) is a charming story of a widow living in upstate New York struggling with her relationships with her three grown children and their issues, a granddaughter who comes to live with her and a new lover. The book touches on many contemporary themes including bullying, sexual identity, adultry, surrogate pregnancies to name a few. This is definitely a feel good read and a pleasant respite from the more serious issues of the day.
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett (F) is a hot book of the moment and worth the attention. It is a multi-generational saga with a different take on racism reflected in the context of the decades between the 1940’s and the present. Twins, who are very light skinned from a Louisiana small town, are inseparable growing up until one of them decides to “disappear” and pass for white. The story has many twists and turns; however, the strength of the book lies in the depth of the relationships between the various characters.
Emily Nichols Grossi:
The Secret Place by Tana French (F). Sob, I am now done with the Dublin Murder Squad books. They are all so damn thrilling and good, even if you must suspend belief in certain moments. It pains me to find the female detective annoying, but she is overwritten in my opinion. Nonetheless, a read that renders the rest of the world invisible in the moment which is, at present, the best sort of escapism.
I’m not done with but am loving Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent by Isabel Wilkerson (NF). Suspect this will be on many a list this time around.
And I thought In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson (NF) was absolutely excellent and terrifyingly relevant. A must-read, IMO.
About my reading in the time of Covid (and Black Lives Matter): 1) I’ve always been interested in how ordinary people handle extraordinary situations. Now in this extraordinary time, I’ve expanded this focus to reflect on leaders; 2) Also, I’m reading more mindfully and exploring new subjects.
The Yield by Tara June Winch (F) is at the top of my list. Australia’s top award (Miles Franklin) went to this Aboriginal writer who says it broke her heart to write it. It’s about colonial violence, oppression and environmental destruction, but also a celebration of the Wiradjuri people through their language. A must on Audible.
Inge’s War, A German Woman’s Story of Family, Secrets, and Survival Under Hitler by Svenja O’Donnell (NF) The subtitle describes the book. This WWII book focuses on ordinary German people — what they knew, what they did or did not do, how they got through the war with madmen at the helm.
The Great Influenza by John M. Barry (NF), a book I wish I had read in print! The information about the so-called Spanish Flu in itself was fascinating. But Barry’s “side trips” into the history of medicine in the US, Johns Hopkins University, the role of the media, Woodrow Wilson and the Peace Conference were all fascinating and relevant to our time. It’s not really 546 pages; lots of footnotes.
The Hemingses of Monticello, An American Family by Annette Gordon-Reed (NF) I couldn’t put this book down, though it was often repetitious. In this meticulously researched work, Gordon-Reed tells the Jefferson/Hemings story by focusing on the Hemings family, the enslaved women and men who worked in Jefferson’s house and lived there as servants to their father and siblings. It takes repetition to get one’s head around that. An important read for me in the time of Black Lives Matter as I try to understand systemic racism more deeply. On to Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste!
The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson (NF). Larson’s purpose here is not another Churchill biography but an account of how Churchill, his family and the people around him lived, worked, and loved during the first year of WWII. This was the year Churchill became the leader history remembers.
Shadowland by Joseph O’Connor (HF) In the genre of historical fiction, this book is a delight to read any time. It captures the world of late 19th century theater in London, the charisma of two of its leading actors Henry Irving and Ellen Terry and their relationship with Irving’s business manager Bram Stoker, the creator of Dracula. It’s pure magic to read and, I’m told, even better to listen to.
I have wanted to read items completely away from the current Covid calamity. So:
For this enforced quarantine interregnum of unknown duration, I decided to read some very long poems—written in English. These have been:
William Wordsworth, The Prelude (1850). Wordsworth worked on this autobiographical poem his entire life, and it details his interactions with nature and the development of his poetry. Quite moving in parts.
Herman Melville, Clarel (1876). This is the longest poem in American literature, and one of the longest in world literature. It took some time to read, but that was the point. It describes how a traveller named Clarel visits the Middle East and his struggles with his religious faith. Extremely interesting, in parts, and quite philosophical, it is now considered one of Melville’s major works.
Lord Byron, Don Juan (1819 – 1824). This satiric epic poem of 16,000 lines is a parody of an epic poem, and is quite witty, in parts. The involuted plot involves the life history of Don Juan and pirates and Turkish mercenaries and the Russian army and Catherine the great… and on and on. I am in the midst of this tale. His gibes at Wordsworth are quite funny.
My favorite book in this period was The Order by Daniel Silva (F). My 98 year old aunt turned me on to Silva many years ago so we have read all of his books together. We share Kindles so I know exactly what page she is on and see that I am always playing catch up.
Silva has as his central character, Gabriel Allon , an artist, a spy, an assassin, high up in the Israeli Intelligence and also a close friend of several Popes with many contacts in the Vatican. This book begins with the assassination of his friend Pope Paul VII and the attempt of an ultra-right religious Order trying to undo the reforms of that Pope ( Think Francis) so they can take over the Catholic church.
I find his books to be real page turners and the story filled with an accuracy of his subjects, Since Allon is a known and respected as an artist specializing in restoration of great art, there is always a masterpiece or two to discuss. In this book, besides the story, I found his Author’s Note at the end of the book to be fascinating.
He takes the time to discuss the sub-plot of anti-Semitism in the church, in the current European Union etc., in our own country, and the controversies concerning Pius XII in WWII;
Since the time frame is present day he also covers the story within the current pandemic.He also takes the time to share a well written history of antisemitism in the ancient texts and scriptures. I felt I leaned so much in the afterward of the story. He quotes some of the truly great theologians as apologists for alternative opinions of many of the arguments used to support antisemitism. I strongly recommend this book as a great read.
The Stand by Stephen King (F). A truly terrific book to read during this time of the Coved 19 virus, self- quarantine; masks, personal and self-distancing;
I first read this book in 1978 when I was teaching religion at Holy Names Academy with Gilbert Brennan. We discussed the book in terms of fundamental choices we all have, What’s it going to be? Good or Evil. It was a very successful discussion. It was Stephen King’ s fourth novel and the longest he had written to that time. To sum up, it is an apocalyptic story about a killer flu, released by the military and spreading throughout the world killing 2/3 of the population in 2 weeks. SOUND FAMILIAR?
The survivors in the US develop into two groups, those who dream of a dark man, Randall Flagg, who has his headquarters in Las Vegas; the others dream of an elderly black woman, Mother Abigail, sitting in a rocking chair on her farm in Nebraska waiting for those who are drawn to her. Obviously the book personifies the attraction in the new world of some to good and some to evil.
The book when originally published had to be revised due to the length and cost. In 2011 the Book was revised again by Mr. King to include the original chapters as well as add some more insight into some of the characters. It was also a made for TV film and a miniseries.
It is a long book but fascinating in the story and the characters. Given the times we are living in, I recommend the Audible version. Sit back, close your eyes, and LISTEN!!!!!! It’s my favorite is Stephen King novel.
Haven Kennedy & Daughter Miriam:
Here is something from me and Miriam:
Reading is, as always, my escape. It allows me to fall into another world. When I’m stressed, I read science-fiction and fantasy – books from my childhood. I’ve been reading an incredible amount of Terry Pratchett’s work. Miriam (my six year old) has been enjoying the books about Tiffany Aching. Pratchett interweaves social commentary and morality in his books, causing you to think. Right now I’m reading Prachett’s Thud (F) , a book about the tension between dwarves and trolls. The book is perfect for the times we are living in.
I’ve also read:
Horace by George Sand (F) – this book was very hard to find. Most of Sand’s work has not been translated into English. It took getting an inter-library loan to receive it. It’s a beautiful book, set in France during the late 18th century. It’s well-written with an emphasis on social commentary.
Lucky Us by Amy Bloom (F) – I read this book in a matter of days. It’s beautifully written with engaging characters. It’s set in WWII. After I finished the book, I began to think about it, finally deciding that it was a well-written, intelligent soap opera. I still recommend reading it, just for the way Bloom writes.
Beyond that, it’s all comfort reads. It’s Terry Pratchett, Jasper Fforde, The Chronicles of Narnia. It’s books of my childhood. It’s books written with my daughter in my lap. It’s reading to my daughter about different cultures, different religions, different ways of thinking. So much of what is going on in the political world is hate and fear – fear of what is different. I want my daughter to turn to reading as a comfort, to seek knowledge, to explore different worlds. Reading is what is needed more than anything. It’s unfortunate that so much of what we read is on social media, which is an echo chamber of what we are already thinking. Reading is a great way to escape the echo chamber. And even in the silliest books – Pratchett’s for example – we can learn something.
The Summer Book by Tove Jansson (F) – lets you escape to an island off the coast of Finland, where you get to know a grandmother and her granddaughter spending a quiet summer there.
Throughout the pandemic, I’ve tried to engage in long-term reading projects — that is, reading a coherent series of books one after the other as opposed to moving among topics. I try to start every morning by spending at least 30-60 minutes on that project before the workday starts. That gives my days a nice rhythm and progressing through the books helps to “mark time” across weeks that might otherwise seem interchangeable.
I started by reading a series of memoirs/biographies of foreign policy-makers, in chronological order. Then I started reading a series of books that the Kennedy School publishes after every presidential election, based on conferences that it holds with presidential campaign managers. The books are called Campaign for President (NF). I’ve learned a lot of history from them, I’ve gotten a better sense of how presidential campaigns view the world, and that has given me some useful perspective on current events.
Jesse Leigh Maniff:
During this time of uncertainty, I’ve been drawn to the familiar, re-reading fictional books that provide an escape from reality and where good triumphs over evil: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (F), Wundersmith by Jessica Townsend (F), second of the Nevermoor series, and the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman (F).
Blue Nile by Virginia Morell (NF). Interested Mike and me especially because it is a true adventure story of an international group who were the first to raft the full length of the very wild and dangerous Blue Nile River from the Ethiopian highlands to Sudan. Interesting on human, adventure, historical levels. (We lived in Ethiopia for two years and have returned three times.)
Hidden Valley Road by Robert Kolker (NF). Amazing true story of a very large family with many cases of schizophrenia and how their experience added to the understanding of the disease.
Becoming by Michelle Obama (NF) Candid, well-written autobiography.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou (NF) Amazingly, I had never read this. I loved it.
The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way by Bill Bryson (NF). Classic Bryson, funny, informative, surprising.
What It’s Like to Be a Bird by David Allen Sibley (NF). \Big, beautiful book about how birds live, not a identification guide but just amazing facts and beautiful paintings.
I just finished the book The Gilded Years by Karen Tanabe (F). It is based on the true story of the first African American woman to attend Vassar College in the late 1890s while passing as a white girl. I loved reading about the exploits of the girls with the Ivy League boys as they navigated their futures after graduation balancing their interests in careers and exploring the world with the realities of marriage and motherhood. The focus of the book is really though on the protagonist and the double life she leads pretending to be white.
Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker by Jennifer Chiaverini (HF). It is a good historical novel.
Bit chilly in Maine but that’s perfect reading weather for me. Here’s my current list for the year of reads worth reading:
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neal Hurston (F) and The Wedding by Dorothy West (F). My book club is focusing on African American women authors. I enjoyed both of these, particularly Dorothy West’s book about the upper class African American community in Martha’s Vineyard; race and class explored from several perspectives.
The Mirror and The Light by Hillary Mantel (HF). What can I say? It’s just as brilliant as Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. Best read in a long time and it’s a long book.
Lane Brisson Retallick:
Crisis in the Red Zone by Richard Preston (NF).
This non-fiction book is subtitled “The Story of the Deadliest Ebola Outbreak in History, and of the Outbreaks To Come.” The author writes in his Preface that this book is the successor to his 1994 book, The Hot Zone. The story covers the Ebola Outbreak of 2013-2014 in the West African area of the Makona Triangle, which includes parts of Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia.
The author is an excellent writer, and he tells a complicated and dramatic story, with a large cast of characters and dire situations, in a suspenseful manner which kept me engaged.
Lydia Hill Slaby:
Just finished reading The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern (F). (Did you ever read her first novel, The Night Circus? It is gorgeous and haunting and I strongly recommend it.) My sister had come home from the library with it a few days ago and got annoyed with it and handed it to me. (Has DC sorted it’s libraries yet? We’re not allowed in, but we can pick up a pile of books from the front door.)
Perhaps it’s because she has children, so everything causes a small amount of annoyance these days.
Halfway through this book I realized I was going to read it at least two more times, so I bought it from our local bookstore and returned the original.
I’m not quite sure what is happening with me and the pandemic and books these days, but I’m finding myself entranced by stories whose plots are hidden (or happen mostly underground?). It started with The Slow Regard of Silent Things by Patrick Rothfuss (F), a novella that describes the life of Auri, his most enigmatic character from the Kingkiller series, and her home in the Underthing. It is more of a character study than an actual story with a beginning, middle, and end, but all stories start somewhere and then end somewhere else, so in a way it is a complete story. Either way, when I fell asleep the night of the day I read it, I felt like my time had been well spent.
The Starless Sea is much longer (so a few days, not just one, of devoted, well-spent reading) and has overlapping and intertwining fairy tales that build into the overarching plot. It is beautifully written, and, if The Slow Regard of Silent Things is a character study of Auri, The Starless Sea is a character study of story itself. How it grows, lives, and dies in one author’s imagination. How one can be chosen or disregarded. How we can pass by another in our search for the obvious, or disregard the obvious in our search for the subtle.
In a sense, a wonderful book for our current time. Strong recommend.
The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson (NF) has occupied my last week or so. Erik Larson takes us on Winston Churchill’s journey through the very beginning of WW II in Britain. Yes, we know the story, but this is a a beautifully documented and highly readable account, and it includes the side stories of several Churchill family members and close confidantes.
ML – Anonymous
I received Franny and Zooey (by J.D.Salinger – F) in 1961, the year of its publication…I read it, and shelved it perfectly ignorant of its predecessors.
Well before my teaching career began, some English prof. probably suggested that everyone ought to have read The Catcher in the Rye. Done, done, and taught it.
In the early 21st century, in a second hand bookstore, I found Salinger’s Nine Stories. Forty years later, the name “Seymour Glass” in some of the stories sounded vaguely familiar; and the internet got me up to speed. I’d broken my own cardinal rule (read multiple works by an author in the order s/he wrote them) without knowing it. Finally, in 2020 (in a second hand bookstore) I found Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters/Seymour, An Introduction.
So somewhere vaguely in April or May (do we still have months?), I read the whole thing in order, concluding with an affecting re-read of Franny and Zooey (you asked about re-reading at some point, but when?!). All of them are better in chronological order, but the body of work is also changed and enhanced by the recent documentary on Salinger which included the info that he suffered lifelong PTSD from having “liberated” Dachau & something else. https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/j-d-salinger
An upshot of this whole thing is that male academics “decided” that Holden Caulfield represented some thang about the American experience. It is the female characters in the Glass Family books & stories–Franny, Esme, Seymour’s sister and mother–who are the most remarkable–at least by comparison to Caulfield.
Meggie Patterson Herlinger:
I have been reading a lot of lighter things more recently but some of the books that I have given five stars to are:
Pretty Things by Janelle Brown (F).
This Tender Land by Willam Kent Krueger (F).
White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo (NF).
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (F).
(My reading in August…interruptions by too much TV news – National Conventions – and now Hurricane Watches –
On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder (NF).
Colony of Unrequited Dreams by Wayne Johnston (F). Fictional account of the rise of Joey Smallwood – New Foundland)
Ancestral Passions: The Leakey Family and the Quest for Humankind’s Beginnings by Virginia Morell (NF).
Blue Nile by Virginia Morell (NF).
I had to reach across my train-fogged mind to remember a couple books that stand out. I read an oldie called My Antonia by Willa Cather (F). It was a cross cultural experience for me to learn about early settlers of the American frontier: Bohemian immigrants from a region in the Czech Republic. The sensitivity and imagery used in this book was nothing short of poetic, and it is clear that the author has lived the experience and loved the forsaken prairie land.
Because my husband lived in the Dominican Republic for six years, I try to read the literature of Hispanic authors from that region, and I zeroed in on this book called Dominicana by Angie Cruz (F). It was about a young immigrant family trying to “make it” in the Bronx. I didn’t love it, but it did keep my interest, and I recommend it because it would be a cross-cultural experience for others who want to understand the experience of Dominican immigrants told from the perspective of a young, relatively powerless and poor young girl.
Life is in the Transitions: Mastering Change at Any Age by Bruce Feller (NF) A timely read about pivotal moments in our lives and adapting to change. Using different stories, he shows us ways to adapt to involuntary and voluntary lifequakes.
The Only Plane in the Sky: Oral History of 9/11 by Garrett Graff (NF). I read this right when Covid-19 started in the US, in particular NYC in March. The reader is transported back in time, recounting that day from multiple perspectives and first-hand accounts. Although heartbreaking, the book is filled with courage and resilience. It reminded me we will get through hard times.
Filthy Beasts by Kirkland Hamill (NF). A riches to rags, tragic-comedy about three boys, an alcoholic mother, indifferent father. It’s perfect for people who like difficult family memoirs and complicated parents.
Hidden Valley Road by Robert Kokler (NF): A true story about a family of 12, six of the boys with schizophrenia. It’s a story about mental illness that defined their entire lives.
The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai (F). The story alternates from the AIDS pandemic in the 80’s in Chicago to modern day Paris. Amazing characters and a good glimpse into multi-generational trauma as a mom tries to track down-her estranged daughter. Very haunting and well-written.
The Last Flight by Julie Clark (F) Two different women at dangerous crossroads change places by switching airplane tickets.
The Hate U Give by Angie Clark (F): Heartbreaking young adult book about a racism, police brutality, and interracial dating.
I initially had five favorite reads, some of which were rereads, for this period: Shadowplay by Joseph O’Connor (F), Crime & Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky (F), A Burning by Megha Majumdar (F), Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey (NF), and Levels of Life by Julian Barnes (NF).
Then I read Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson (NF) and decided that it was so compelling that I only wanted to focus on that single book. (See Ellen Miller’s account above.)
Some of you know of Wilkerson from her Pulitzer Prize winning reporting for feature writing at the NY Times. A number of you, including myself, have previously cited as a favorite her 2010 The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (NF), winner of the National Book Critic Circle Award and one of the NY Times’s Best Nonfiction books of 2010.
In this new eye-opening account of how our society is organized, Wilkerson captured me and held me throughout with her focus on caste as a way of understanding my country, our history, and our current divisions in a way I had never truly seen it.
In linking her examination of how our (hidden) caste system is similar to those of India and Nazi Germany and with compelling stories that we can all understand, she accomplishes her goal of making the reader see perhaps what we have never clearly seen: the effects that our caste system has played and continues to play in shaping what kind of country we have.
In her Epilogue, “A World Without Caste,” Wilkerson pulls together what she wants us all to understand: that once we truly see what caste has done and continues to do, we can choose individually and as a country to do something about it.
The book is a call to look at ourselves in a different way than perhaps we have until now.
It is compelling.
Brian Doyle’s Mink River (F). I recently read this a second time and now know I will read it again. And quite likely again. Along with re-reading Frances Itani – Requiem, Deafening (HF) – books, words, authors that hold you quietly in place, not for plot but for the solace and joy and surprise of words. (I’m thinking of launching again on Dorothy Dunnett’s The House of Nicolo for months of an amazing, gripping ride. Takes patience, but oh boy….)
Jeff Abbott’s new page turner, Never Ask Me (F). Follows the fast pace of his last best seller, The Three Beths. Jeff’s work for me is an absolute page turner, and I generally stay up all night reading him.
On the nonfiction side; a hero in America but not so much in his native France, The Marquis, Lafayette Reconsidered by Laura Auricchio (NF) is a sobering reminder how reason and moderation often cannot succeed in the midst of a radically polarized society. Opposed by both the Jacobins and the monarchists, they could all agree on their hatred of Lafayette, the author of The Declaration of the Rights of Men and a genuine hero of the American Revolution whose very life was only spared because of the interventions of President George Washington. Later in life, Lafayette opposed both the excesses of Napoleon and France’s last king Louis XVIII.
From the American Presidents series sponsored by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Franklin Pierce by Michael Holt (NF) and James Buchanan by Jean Baker (NF). Spurred by the bitter politics of today, I have been doing a deep dive into the most divisive politics in American history, America in the 1850s, the politics that led to the Civil War.
Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan were our 14h and 15th Presidents in the eight years just before Lincoln was elected President in 1860. Both men are ranked towards the bottom of any rankings of America’s 45 Presidents – but I expect Mr Trump will tank just ahead of Buchanan.
James Buchanan, America’s only bachelor President, may be the most disappointing. An ambitious politician who served and loved his country and who helped add more territory to the United States as Polk’s Secretary of State than any other administration (think Mexican cession – larger than the Louisiana Purchase – and the person who negotiated our final borders with Canada. Buchanan was less successful as President when he tried to add both Cuba and Baja California.
Virtually everything both Pierce and Buchanan did as President blatantly favored the South (four of Buchanan’s cabinet members would serve as high ranking leaders of the Confederacy- including its President, Jefferson Davis.)
After Lincoln’s election and after South Carolina’s secession a month later in December 1860 (Lincoln would not assume the Presidency until March 1861); unlike his hero, Andrew Jackson during the 1830s nullification crisis, Buchanan inexplicably did nothing. He even allowed virtually all federal munitions in the South to fall into the hands of the Confederacy.
Jean Baker argues that if Buchanan had just taken basic steps to preserve the Union he took an oath to serve, the Civil War may have been entirely avoidable – and that Buchanan’s actions would have been considered treason during any other time.
Both Franklin and Buchanan failed to understand the depth of Northern opposition not only to the institution of slavery itself – but Northerners were resentful of a small anti democratic Southern aristocratic elite that seemed to dominate every lever of our nation’s national government.
Inferno by Max Hastings (NF). The best one-volume history of WW2. The author is a master of strategy and offers unvarnished opinions about many of the prominent WW2 generals and politicians. The book also quotes from hundreds of diaries and letters to provide views of what happened from a ground-level perspective. Revelatory on the overwhelming contribution of the Soviet Union to the Allied victory. A masterpiece.
The Man Who Broke Napoleon’s Codes by George Scovell (NF). The British army under Wellington vanquished Napoleon’s forces in a multi-year campaign in Spain. This came about in part because of the code-breaking efforts of a British officer who is finally getting a secure place in history as the result of this book. Amazing detail and lucid narrative and description.
Sashenka by Simon Sebag Montefiore (F), a prequel to Red Sky at Noon. Not as good, but enjoyable.
From Russia with Blood: The Kremlin’s Ruthless Assassination Program and Vladimir Putin’s Secret War on the West by Heidi Blake, Marisa Calin, et al. (NF). Very well sourced, scary stuff connecting the dots of Putin’s killing regime
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari (NF). Anthro 101 for people like me who didn’t take it in college. inspiration in every chapter.
All Creatures Great and Small by James Harriot (NF). A vet recounts his life in Yorkshire in the 30s. Incredibly enjoyable.
Uncle Fred in the Springtime by P.G. Wodehouse (F). My favorite of PG Wodehouse’s characters, Frederick Alamont Cornwallis Twistleton III, the Earl of Ickenham. Like uncorking a vial of laughing gas.
Now reading the second book, All Things Bright and Beautiful by James Harriot (NF). Reread Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (F). Managed to fit in a reread of The Razor’s Edge by Somerset Maugham (F), my favorite book.
Just started Jean Genet’s Prisoner of Love (NF). Have you ever read him? What a life!
The Dutch House by Ann Patchett (F). I’ve loved Ann Patchett since Bel Canto and keep waiting for that lightening to strike again. It doesn’t quite happen here, but it was an interesting read and worth it.
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles (F). I just loved this book. Such an odd premise he begins with an a leisurely pace until the end and yet super compelling. I’m a fan.
The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafron (F). A total classic and I understand why. I couldn’t stop thinking about this book after finishing it. It’s completely engrossing and even as I write about it, I’m thinking all over again about it. :)
Daisy Jones and The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid (F) – I was put off by the telling of the story: it reads like a transcript of an “interview” between multiple people spliced in with one another to tell a story. And then I was hooked. She’s a good storyteller after all.
The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Mink Kidd (F) – More of a “feel good” beach read than anything, but if you’re at a beach and want something light and lovely, read this.
Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney (F) – Her debut novel from 2017 got a ton of buzz so I read it. Interesting. She’s a good writer with a modern take on relationships so there’s that. I prob didn’t love as much as others did, however.
Hugh Riddleberger said:
Hi Richard…miss you and Ellen..
I was surprised not to see American Dirt (F) by Jeanine Cummins in your readers’ list (did I miss it?)…it was an absolute page turner from the first page…and though total fiction, gives you an appreciation of an immigrant’s struggles to reach America..from Mexico…so if people want a good read..I highly recommend it..i also read the Churchill book The Splendid and the Vile which one or more of your readers mentioned and is worth the read..and I was curious to read Sam’s recommendation of the WWII book as I agree if the Russians had not entered the war…England would have been “toast.” But, then we have our own “Hitler” in power now.
Wishing you and your readers all the best..
Ellen Miller said:
Hugh. I read American Dirt and followed closely all the push back on the author and the publisher. (See this link: https://www.vox.com/culture/2020/1/22/21075629/american-dirt-controversy-explained-jeanine-cummins-oprah-flatiron)
I thought it was a pretty good read, but, in part I am sure because I have read many books on the immigrant experience, this one didn’t rate a 5 star recommendation. If fact, I don’t think I personally recommended it to anyone. It’s different narrative; professional woman focused out of her country because of drug cartel pursuit, it just didn’t stand out for me.
For other immigrant stories I preferred, check out: The Book of Rosy: A Mother’s Story of Separation at the Border by Cruz, Lost Children Archive by Luiselli, Exit West by Hamid, Americanah by Adichie, Behold the Dreamers by Mbue, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Vuong, A Woman Is No Man by Rum, Pachinko by Lee.
Cheers to you all,