I’m pleased to post this list of 34 titles that were particular favorites to MillersTime readers and contributors over the past few months. (Note: contributors were limited to submitting just one title for this post, and one book was cited by two different contributors). The breakdown between female and male contributors favored females (23-11).
As has been the trend over the past few years, there were slightly more non fiction (NF) than fiction (F) titles (18-16). Also, almost half of the fiction titles were historical fiction (HF).
As always, the value of the list comes from the comments each contributor makes about her or his choice of a favorite read. And even if you don’t know the individual who cited a particular book, I think there’s value in reading all of the comments.
Enjoy the list, I think you’ll find a least a few that might appeal.
As always, this type of posting can only happen because of your willingness to participate.
Thanks to all.
Recent Favorite Reads – Alphabetical by First Name of Contributor
Abigail Wiebenson – A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende (HF). I loved it.
Anita Rechler –The Code Breaker by Walter Isaacson (NF). I am not the most likely person to be drawn into a book that takes a deep dive into basic science. FWIW CRSPR could have been a drawer in my refrigerator for storing lettuce. (Well, not really.) For a novice, Isaacson makes the science of gene editing accessible. What kept me engaged were the human stories of people driven by camaraderie, curiosity, competition, collaboration, capitalism. I ‘read’ the book on audible.
Barbara Friedman – American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin (NF), is a fascinating biography of the brilliant theoretical physicist, the man who made the Manhattan Project (and the bombs) happen. He was caught up in the McCarthy Trials – was he a member of the Communist Party? – and ended his career as the head of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. There were heroic as well as tragic aspects of his life. The book is very much worth a read.
Charlie Atherton – When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamin Labatut (NF), a National Book Award finalist and rated by the NYTimes as one of the ten best books of 2021. I must admit that I am usually a reader of fiction, crime fiction, but I most enjoyed the author’s combination of personal details from the lives of eminent scientists and mathematicians, many of which were undoubtedly fictitious, coupled with readable descriptions of ideas produced by the greatest minds of the modern era.
Chris Boutourline – Anxious People by Fredrik Backman (F) (author of A Man Called Ove). I read this after my wife started it and then put it down after 40 pages or so. She said that the transcripts of the police interviews of witnesses weren’t making sense and, that, overall, she just wasn’t enjoying it. Since it is an upcoming read for my book club I read it all the way through. The gist of the story is that a bank robbery goes bad, and the bank robber takes the attendees of a condo open house hostage while trying to figure out what to do next. Early on the novel does feel disjointed as the witness statements reveal more about those recounting than about the robber. Best not to say much more, other than I told my wife that I thought she’d be rewarded by picking up where she left off, and, after finishing it, she agreed. Suicide is one of the numerous themes the novel touches upon.
Cbris Rothenberger – The Four Windsby Kristen Hannah (F). This is the story of Elsa, unloved by her family, a hasty marriage, and abandonment by her family. The Dustbowl, Great Depression become the backdrop to the story of Elsa’s survival. Starvation and desperation punctuate this book. She leaves for California with her children in search of a better life and there endures the battle between the “haves” and “have nots,” a nation divided, and the rising up of migrant workers in her struggle to survive.
This book was a sad and difficult, but an illuminating read of an era that I knew little about. It puts a spotlight on the land, on love, the definition of hope and heroism, and a country in crisis. It is a very powerful story that has stayed with me and is a portrait of that time in our history as seen through Elsa’s eyes.
Chuck Tilis –Thou Shall Innovate—How Israeli IngenuityRepairs the Worldby Avi Jorisch (NF). A compendium of inspiring vignettes describing the incredible contributions “Israelis” created to improve the lives for all human-kind. Israelis in quotes as most inventions were due to the collaboration between Jews and Arabs. I liken this book as the sequel to Start Up Nation. Each story stands on its own and can be read one at a time at any pace.
Cindy Olmstead – The Personal Librarianby Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray (HF). Historical novel about JP Morgan’s personal librarian, Belle de Costa Greene, the Black American woman who hid her identity to curate a collection of rare manuscripts, books and artwork for JP Morgan’s new Pierpoint Morgan Library. This is the story of an extraordinary woman known for her intellect, style (famous for her hats), and ability to mingle in society’s upper circles to accomplish what she knew she had to do. Excellent read!
David Stang – Hair of the Dog to Paint the Town Red: The Curious Origins of Everyday Sayings and Fun Phrases by Andrew Thompson (NF), a lawyer obsessed with finding out the truth about over two hundred Idiomatic expressions and how they were derived. Thompson’s persevering scholarship traces the roots of several terms in his book as far back as the Fifteenth Century. For curious minds this book is a truly fascinating read.
Donna Pollet – Anil’s Ghostby Michael Ondaatje (HF). Given the most recent headlines about the uprising and collapse of the government in Sri Lanka, this novel written in 2000 characterizing an earlier and turbulent civil war of unrest, murder, and kidnapping will evoke interest. The writing is compelling, and the characters are multi-dimensional with absorbing back stories. Anil, a forensic pathologist called in by an international organization, teams up with Sarath, a local government official and archeologist to investigate a series of murders in violation of human rights. Their investigation leads to the discovery of an unidentified victim and becomes a mission to find justice for him and the countless other nameless murdered. It is a story of personal tragedy, individual integrity, and the spirit of human resilience.
Elizabeth Lewis – Walk with Me: A Biography of Fannie Lou Hamer by Kate Clifford Larson (NF). With its copious footnotes, this biography reads more like a thesis than a popular account of the life of a remarkable woman whose presence in and command of the Civil Rights Movement spanned much more than is popularly known. It is frightening, uplifting, and far too relevant for the faint of heart.
Elizabeth Tilis – Lily’s Promise: How I Survived Auschwitz and Found the Strength to Live by Lily Ebert (NF). The story of a Holocaust survivor from Hungary and her great-grandson Dov who used social media to track down the family of the GI who gave Lily a banknote on which he’d written “Good luck and happiness” the day she was liberated.
Ellen Kessler – Prison Minyan by Jonathan Stone (F). I recently read & enjoyed this novel. It is modeled after Otisville State Prison in Otisville, NY (Michael Cohen, personal atty for Trump before he started talking, went there). The book is very entertaining and often amusing. The rabbi conducting the minyan is one of three rabbis in prison! The characters are stereotypical in some ways, and there are some serious ideas to consider, but I enjoyed the book for the humor most of all. I have recommended it to some friends, and all of them have told me how enjoyable it is. A perfect vacation book!
Ellen Miller – The Twilight World by Werner Herzog (HF). The German filmmaker Werner Herzog’s first novel tells the story of a Japanese soldier — Hiroo Onoda — who defended a small island in the Pacific for 30 years after the end of World War II. It is an absolutely remarkable and mesmerizing story, from both how Herzog met Onoda to the long hours they spent together unraveling Onoda’s story. We learn how Onoda survived in the jungle and fought the enemy as he had been instructed by his superior officer in 1944, just as the Japanese troops began to withdraw from the island. He ignored repeated pleas to surrender throughout the years, thinking they were ‘enemy’ tricks.
Herzog brilliantly adds some details to the story, which are purely fictional, to fill in the blanks of the actual story and to keep the reader engaged. This is an unusual book, an unbelievable and unknown story brought to life by Herzong’s storytelling and literary talents.
Fran Renehan – The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles (F) who also wrote A Gentleman in Moscow, which was one of the best books I have ever read. I think his writing is superb. This story is about a young boy just released from a detention center. He finds his brother, and they set off to find their mother. However, two other boys arrive on the scene that have escaped from the same institution. The stories are twisted, and there are way too many segues for me. But I still could not put it down.
Fruzsina Harsanyi – The Grieving Brain: The Surprising Science of How We Learn from Love and Loss by Mary-Frances O’Connor (NF). This amazing book by a neuro-scientist shares groundbreaking discoveries about how our brain handles grief and provides a new paradigm for understanding love, loss, and restoration. During the past 10 months I have read a lot of fiction and non-fiction about grieving, and this is by far the most helpful.
Garland Standrod –H of H Playbookby Anne Carson (F). Anne Carson is an eccentric and quite original poet and translator of ancient Greek texts, and for her translations, she uses modern language and contexts to bring out the depth and wit of the piece involved. H of H Playbook is a facsimile edition of her translation, with illustrations, of Euripides play Herakles. Anne Carson is also well known for her translations of Sappho and of the Oresteia.
Hugh Riddleberger – Clementine: The Life of Mrs. Winston Churchill by Sonia Purnell (NF), author of best selling AWoman of No Importance. Well written, exploring the life of Clementine Churchill…once again confirms my belief that women are so much better in most things. Devoted to Winston, without her, most likely Britain would have fallen. His loyal advisor and critic, a complex woman. Worth a read.
Jane Bradley – Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynastyby Patrick Radden Kee (NF). This extraordinary history of the family and the marketing strategy at the heart of the opioid crisis helps you understand, and support, the movement to drop the Sackler name from the museums and galleries whose benefits so many have enjoyed.
Jeff Friedman – The Fall of Robespierreby Colin Jones (NF) provides a detailed, hour-by-hour account of the coup that ended Robespierre’s reign in 1794. The history alone is gripping, but the book also offers fascinating insights into the nature and fragility of political power.
Jesse Maniff – In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson (NF). Set in Nazi Germany in 1933 and told from the perspective of the American ambassador’s family, this book was a terrifying reminder of what can happen when fringe beliefs become normalized in the pursuit of maintaining power.
Judy White – The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman (NF). I had read this some years ago and re-read it last winter, enjoying it again. The author becomes very involved with all the players in a real-life drama involving a Hmong family, whose young child has seizures that cannot be controlled, and the doctors and social workers who try to help. She (the author) is able to understand where each of these people is coming from and convey their positions beautifully, no easy task. The author, too, plays a role even as she observes. An all-time favorite — I’ll probably read it again in a few years.
Kate Latts – Hands down the best book I have read in the past few month is The Women of Chateau Lafayette by Stephanie Dray (HF). There are three interwoven true stories about the women who were inspired by the legacy of Marquis de Lafayette and his castle in the French countryside. One of the stories set in the late 1700s chronicles Lafayette’s wife throughout their 34 year marriage and his journey to become a beloved hero. The second story is set during WWI and features the real life woman who created the Lafayette Foundation as she travels between NYC and France establishing Lafayette’s castle as an orphanage. The third story is set in WWII and focuses on a young woman who grew up the orphanage and joins the resistance movement during German occupation. The book is not short, but very good.
Kathleen Kroos –The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid (F). This book has huge juicy secrets right up until the end.
Larry Maknson – Walking the Bowl: A True Story of Murder and Survival Among the Street Children of Lusaka by Christ Lockhart & Daniel Mulilo Chama (NF). An absorbing, immersive look at the lives of street children in Lusaka, Zambia. The book is a result of a multi-year anthropological study of the slum-dwelling kids, but it reads like a novel as it follows the lives of its four main characters. An absorbing read.
Marsha Harbinson – In the City of Bikes: The Story of The Amsterdam Cyclist by Pete Jordan (NF), It’s a fascinating history of cycling in Amsterdam & especially interesting to read of the cycling resistance to the Nazi occupation in WWII.
Martha Curtin – Pachinkoby Min Jin Lee, (HF). I recently read this historical fiction novel that explores life from the perspective of Koreans who emigrated to Japan during WW2. The book is presented in three parts, representing 3+ generations, but is a quick read due to it being well written. This rich time in history offers personal stories from so many perspectives… I’m hooked on historical fiction from this era.
Mike White — The Rose Code by Kate Quinn (HF). I don’t read much fiction but really enjoyed this novel, based on real events and people, about the codebreakers in England during World War II. Hard to put down; many twists and turns in the plot. Judy liked it too.
Mary L – Damon Runyan Omnibus by Damon Runyan (F). I finally finished 500 pages of Damon Runyon short stories which I’ve been sampling for four years. They are funniest when read one at a time as a pause between longer books. Available on-line in Australia: https://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks11/1100651h.html
The natural habitat of Harry the Horse and Nathan Detroit is the neighborhood of Manhattan where I was born. I even found a reference to the hospital where that occurred in one of the stories. Runyon’s stories are all in the present tense which makes them even livelier than they naturally are. I marvel that a man born in Kansas (Kansas!) could capture the ethos of 1920s/30s New York. Set aside all your modern concerns about sexism and representation and go to Guys and Dolls-land. This guy says the book can do.
Meg Gage – The Weight of Ink, Rachel Kadish (HF). A remarkable story that weaves an interconnected tale of two women: one a Jewish survivor of the Spanish Inquisition and a refuge from Amsterdam, who in London manages to become a scribe for a blind rabbi; the other a jaded and ailing London historian who has a deep personal and professional connection to Jewish history. The story and the connection of the two main characters is launched when a huge trove of 350 year old original Jewish letters and documents is found in the course of the renovation of an derilict mansion outside London. The book took Kadish over 10 years to write, which resulted in a deeply researched and poignant story with plot threads involving the likes of Shakespeare and Spinoza. Amazing details about life in London just before and during the plague — I felt like I was there! One of the most compelling books I’ve read in years.
Richard Miller – The Grieving Brain: The Surprising Science of How We Learn from Love and Loss by Mary-Francis O’Connnor (NF). Recently, I came across what has truly been the most insightful explanation of anything I’ve read in connection with the topics of loss, grieving, and grief. O’Connor writes about what happens in our brain when we experience loss and why grief and grieving are so powerful. In helping us understand what science has recently learned about these issues, she shows us a new perspective and a new way to think about these powerful issues. O’Connor writes that The Grieving Brain is in no way an ‘advice book,’ yet for me it offers so many new insights on these subjects that I will return to it many times and will certainly recommend it others.
Romana Campos – I just finished The Night Watchman (F) by Louise Erdrich and really enjoyed it. Can you fact check this, but I believe it won a Pulitzer Prize (Ed. Yup. 2021). So what did I like about it? Cultural perspective. The conversations that take place inside the homes and the workplaces of individuals and families make you feel like you’re sitting at the kitchen table with family, and you find out what’s important and relevant from the perspective of that person, that family, and that community’s lived experience.
Sam Black – Breaking the Age Code by Becca Levy (NF). Levy, a professor at Yale, develops the evidence that common American stereotypes about “senior citizens” are inaccurate and are quite different from the way society views these citizens in some other countries. Moreover, she builds the case that when society believes these things, senior citizens go along, to their detriment, and that these beliefs actually increase illness and death rates. So be warned!
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On a slightly different note, since there are so many books available and we have so many choices, I am curious about how each of you came to read the book you cited. If you have a few moments, please let me and others know in the Comment section of this post how you chose this particular book as well as generally how you go about picking the books you read.That may give all of us ideas of how to find good reads and not spend time on books that are not worthyof our reading time.
Since it’s the middle of the year, and three months since the last Call for Favorite Reads, I thought it might be valuable to continue mid-year posting of books MillersTime readers are particularly enjoying.
For this mid-year call, I’m asking that you send in just one title and your accompanying remarks about why you enjoyed that book.
As usual, give the title, author, identify the book as F or NF, and, most importantly, write a few sentences or a paragraph of what it was/is about this book that makes it into your category of particularly enjoyable or exceptional.
If you do not have anything to add at this point, you might want to check out the 3/30/22 post, Winter-Spring 2022: Best Reads. There were a number of enticing reads in that post.
I already know what book I’ll select out of the several very good ones I’ve read in the last three months.
How about you?
Deadline for Submission – July 15th
Send to Samesty84@gmail.com
(But don’t wait – I don’t plan to send a reminder)
As I have done for the past 12 years, I am asking for a list (anywhere from one to as many as six) of the books you’ve most enjoyed reading in 2021.
There is no definition to the kind of book which you might add to this list. They can be fiction, non-fiction, science fiction, science, mystery, romance, hobbies, children’s books, etc. I am just looking for what you truly enjoyed this past year (old or new books) with the thought that others might get some ideas for their reading in 2022.
Even if you think others may recommend a particular book that you liked, please include it on your list. Some folks like to know that more than one or two MillersTime readers have enjoyed a given title.
Send me your list (Samesty84@gmail.com) with the title, author and whether the book is fiction (F) or non-fiction (NF). Please take the time to include a few sentences about the book and particularly what made this book so enjoyable for you.
For many of the contributors and readers of this annual list, it is the comments that are what’s most important about MillersTime Favorite Reads each year.
Please send your list by December 20. Then I can post the results by January 1.
For this annual post about what books have been your most favorite reads over the past year, I’m asking that we limit our submissions to just four titles.
While this may seem restrictive to some of you, I think it will make for a somewhat different post than in previous years (our 12th year). I’m aiming for less emphasis on what books got the ‘most favorite’ label from MillersTime readers (not trying to compete with all those other year end book lists) and more emphasis on why certain books were individual’s favorites.
Thus, I urge you to write a few sentences about each of your choices, explaining what was particularly meaningful to you about a chosen favorite. Why was a particular book most enjoyable, most important, most thought provoking, the best written, the ones you may go back and read again, the ones you reread this year, and/or the ones you may have suggested to others that they might enjoy?
Additionally, please feel free to add either at the beginning or the end of your submission, a couple of sentences about your reading overall this year. For instance, did you concentrate on new books, older titles, rereads, more fiction or nonfiction than in the past, etc.? Did you read electronically or in paper, did you listen to books, and generally did you read more or less than in previous years?
To make my task of putting the list together a bit easier, please given the full title of the book, followed by the author’s name, and whether the book was F or NF. If any of the ‘books’ on your list were ones you enjoyed audibly, please indicate that.
Feel free to include any favorites that you may have submitted to any of the three earlier book posts this year:
Don’t be concerned about whether others will have the same book(s) on their lists or that a particular book might not be a popular choice as those are not the most important aspects of this year’s list. Contributors use the list to find reading options they may not know about or have considered. Your reasons for your favorites this year are what I hope readers will find most valuable.
Please send me (Samesty84@gmail.com) your submission by Sunday, Dec. 20 so I will have enough time to collate the list and post it by the end of the month.
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 Hellby 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 Silenceby 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 Beastsby 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: OralHistory 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 Discontentsby IsabelWilkerson (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.
I wondered in a previous post if there was any interest in contributors focusing on rereads for the end of August update on Favorite Reads. There seemed to be enough interest that I’m proceeding with the idea.
If you are interested and willing to participate, here are a few guidelines (I know some of you just want to stick with new books, which is fine, and I will of course include whatever you read between now and then).
Pick one or more books you’ve read previously (as a child, as an adolescent, in your young adult years, in your middle years, in your later years, recently, etc.), reread it with a few questions in mind:
Why did you choose this particular book to reread?
How was it the second time around?
What particularly struck you in this reread?
What accounts for any differences from the first reading?
Fifty of you responded this time, including our Senior Contributor who is 98 years of age, and you were divided almost equally between males and females. Nonfiction slightly outpaced fiction (49-43).
We’ll do this one more time at the end of the summer; so keep a record of your favorite reads in June, July, and August. Also, there was interest from enough of you in rereading at least one book from your past. I’ll proceed with that as a separate project/post and send a few guidelines shortly.
Mostly, however, I appreciate all of you who responded and sent in contributions, and I thank each of you for participating.
Contributors are listed alphabetically by first names.
Paladin by David Ignatius (F). Absorbing page turner spy novel. Frightening but at least not about a biological virus. Added bonus: watch interview with Ignatius here and And this replay of interview by Ignatius of Barton Gellman who has written a book about his journalistic reporting of Snowden.
The Island of Sea Women: A Novel by Lisa See (F). Another wonderful book by Lisa See about the Haenyeo, a female diving/fishing community on the Korean island of Jeju and interwoven with a long-term relationship between two friends over several decades. On this island the women earn the money while the men tend to the children. The novel covers the time period starting with the Japanese occupation of Korea during WWII through the US occupation after WWII and the division of Korea into two countries and into the period when Koreans once again rule the country and what transpires for the inhabitants of Jeju. What holds the novel together over this long period, however, are the two women, Young-Sook and Mi-ja who are life-long “friends.”
The Rationing: A Novel by Charles Wheelan (F). A HOOT of a novel and published a year ago, it is about a pandemic in the US in the mid-2020’s, how the NIH and other medical professionals worked to understand the Capellaviridae pandemic and how it was caused. (Sound familiar?) From the beginning, they knew the drug Dormigen could cure the sick patient, but it was in short supply in the US, and other countries had an excess of supply but wouldn’t send it to the US in case they needed it. The politics – both international and within the US and its parties — ring so true for what we are seeing with COVID-19. The book is a bit long, but in today’s real pandemic, a HOOT is worth it!
These Truths by Jill Lepore (NF). Still working my way through it – it’s long and for some reason my reading time seems limited – but it’s the history of our country that we need now, and she writes engagingly. I’m rapidly becoming a Jill Lepore groupie – I don’t know where she gets the time (professor of History at Harvard, New Yorker staff writer, and now even a podcast!).
Maid by Stephanie Land (NF) – at a time when we’re understanding “essential workers” in new ways, and discovering all the tears in the safety net, this account of the life and struggles of a “cleaning lady” is sobering.
I completed Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens (F) this past week and enjoyed it from cover to cover, as it describe an area where we had a family farm, so I knew some of the types of folks in the region growing up on summers there.
I am reading Larry Cuban’s new book, and probably his last Chasing Success Chasing Success and Confronting Failure in American Public Schools (NF).
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (F).
The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay (F)
The Eleventh Man by Ivan Doig (F) takes you into the war experiences of football teammates, dispersed around the globe with the breakout of WWII. Ben Reinking is pulled out of pilot training and assigned to write about each of his buddies, thereby providing “hero” fodder for the war propaganda machine. The novel raises agonizing problems—Ben’s simmering resentment of the team’s bullying coach, and of the smarmy newsman Ben suspects of dreaming up this whole propaganda project; questions like what is heroism, or bravery, after all; a hot love affair with troubling issues— and Doig treats these issues adroitly without providing any easy answers.
White Lies(NF) – aired as a 7-part series on WAMU (NPR) that focused on the murder of Rev. James Reeb in Selma, 1965—caught my attention because Reeb had been an assistant minister at All Souls Unitarian Church that we belong to. Two journalists went to Selma to learn what they could, and the series shares their process, interviews, and findings—amazingly (and maybe because they were from Alabama) they got folks to say things they had kept secret for all these years. You learn not only about the racial issues in that place and time, but also much about the nature of perception and the deep-rootedness of beliefs – available as a podcast and worth hearing!
My first recommendation is Born a Crime by Trevor Noah (NF). This is a true story of his growing up in Africa. He is a wonderful comedian
Second book is Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family by Robert Kolker (NF). True story of a family where six of the 12 children were diagnosed with Schizophrenia, and is interspersed in a very readable way with research which has done on that terrible disease.
The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War by Ben Macintyre (NF) is the story of Oleg Gordievsky, the son of two KGB employees who follows his older brother, a KGB operative, into the fold. Oleg’s exposure to Western ideas and values which, ironically, he was exposed to while working for the KGB out of a foreign embassy, leads him to betray the motherland in the hope of bettering his own life and those of his countrymen. It’s an account that kept me interested throughout and informed me of Russia’s attempts at foreign manipulation, countered by Western efforts, all of which began earlier than I was aware of.
Know My Name by Chanel Miller (NF). This is her journey after being sexually abused by a Stanford Univ student. I listened on Audible as she reads the narrative. It is extremely poignant and shows how the victim (in 2016) is still viewed as guilty. Chanel does an excellent yet laborious job of sharing her struggle to find her voice, ultimately being able to get the legal system to change.
We Were The Lucky Ones by Georgia Hunter (NF). The author traces her Jewish family’s horrific saga living in Poland during Hitler’s reign. She weaves the lives of the siblings together even when they had not heard from each other for several years. A moving story.
While readingOur Wild Calling: How Connecting with Animals Can Transform Our Lives – and Save Theirs by Richard Louv (NF) the subject matter of which I am quite interested in but found the book although fine on breadth, rather weak on depth
I came across Louv’s very positive comments about Jay Griffiths’ book WILD: An Elemental Journey (NF). In WILD she breaks down the planet into Wild Earth, Wild Ice, Wild Water, Wild Fire, Wild Air, and Wild Mind. Jay traveled to and reported on abused wild peoples all over the globe who she got to know through lengthy multi-week visits in highly primitive living conditions located outside of normal “civilization.” Jay, an English writer, lived with Amazon River basin shamans in their huts by beginning each day drinking ayahuasca. She also resided with Eskimos near the Canadian North Pole; Pygmies in the Calamari Desert, tribal people still using bows and arrows in Papua; Aborigines in Australia and a multitude of other peoples and places. Her impressive reporting was superbly supplemented by detail references quoted from the books in her huge bibliography. Clearly a wild woman herself, Jay’s identification with the wild people she describes is made clear by her ranting style of writing and by her photograph on the dust jacket in which looks like she might be bipolar.
I just finishedRabbit At RestbyJohn Updike (F). I like the way he writes.
I also reread Atonement by Ian McEwan (F). I like the way he writes also.
People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks (F). This is historical fiction, filling in events in the story of the Sarajevo Haggadah – a real 500 year old, beautifully illustrated book that has managed to survive the Spanish Inquisition, the Nazis, and the Serb attacks on Bosnia. It is really a series of inventive short stories cleverly told and held together by their relation to the book, and the book conservator hired to stabilize the manuscript . I found it totally engaging.
Buzz Saw: The Improbable Story of How the Washington Nationals Won the World Series by Jesse Dougherty (NF). Baseball fans, and Nationals fans in particular, will much enjoy this recounting of last year’s historic postseason run by the Nationals. The author was the beat writer for the Washington Post and covered the Nationals throughout the season. The book is more than a game-by-game recap of the postseason; it has lots of very interesting back stories that give the read insight into the personalities and chemistry of the ball club.
The Guardians by John Grisham (F). This is another legal thriller by the master of the genre. It takes place in a small Florida town where a young black man is convicted of murdering a young lawyer. Guardian Ministries (which has a lot of similarities to Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative) takes on legal representation for the accused when they become convinced he was wrongfully convicted and forgotten by the system.
Mary Wollstonecraft by Eleanor Flexner (NF), a biography, not about the author of “Frankenstein”, but her mother, who was a late eighteen century feminist in England. It is overly researched and academic to make for easy reading, but her life was so unusual for the time that it is worth the effort.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera (F). A highly acclaimed Czechoslovak author skillfully uses wit, philosophy, politics, passion in magnificent prose sometimes ordering on poetry to tell a complex story.
Elizabeth (Goodman) Lewis:
Blindnessby Jose Saramago (F): Did I say fiction? It sure reads like it’s real. But actually it’s an allegory of what happens in a country when all the inhabitants become blind. Written in the 1990s by this Nobel Prize winner, Blindness narrates the worst-case scenario of a pandemic.
The Library Bookby Susan Orlean (NF): With a thesis that, “in a library, (you) can live forever,” this book details the great fire of LA Public Library, its history, and its role in the city. Along the way, the author brings the characters that people the library to life and exposes the difficulty of proving the crime of arson.
Stan (husband) reads like a gourmet, and I think I read like a garbage disposer–putting it all in and then starting again.
I am almost finished Armando Correa’s The Daughter’s Tale (F) about a WWII Jewish German family and in another way, presents a choice for the mother similar to Sophie’s in Sophie’s Choice.
I am adding two more books by Jean Grainger, The Star and the Shamrock(F) and its sequel,The Emerald Horizon(F). The Grainger books are really Beach Books, rapid to read, happy ending, and characters who are pretty flat with a simple plot. All three are WWII books, with the Grainger books fun with simple take-a-way. Correa’s book is far from simple and it’s ending seems appropriate to the book.
Inge’s War. A German Woman and Story of Family, Secrets & Survival under Hitler by Svenga O’Donnell (NF). A remarkable true story — a Holocaust-era book with non-Jews as the central characters — about the author’s great-grandparents, her grandmother, and her mother and what they faced as Hitler rose to power through the post-war war period. It is mesmerizing story telling, revealing secrets hidden for many decades, brilliantly researched, and very well written. Perhaps most importantly, this book is also a reckoning by the author as she reveals the legacy of her family’s neutrality and inaction during those times.
This is All I Got by Lauren Sandler (NF) . I would not recommend this book for everyone, but for those particularly interested in how our democracy fails the people at the lower rungs of economic ladder, especially those who try to do everything right to get ahead, this work of nonfiction is for you. At theheart of this story is a 22 year old woman and her infant as they confront the system to get ahead. It’s a story of failing government services, red tape, the struggle to raise yourself up, despite the institutional pressures to keep you pinned down.
My two favorite books recently (read on Kindle) were both on your list generated last time:
The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Dare (F). The novel is set in Nigeria in recent years, first in a remote village where the young protagonist is sold first into marriage as a third wife, and then after an escape is sold into virtual slavery in Lagos. The story, though sad is actually heartwarming, and the language and dialogue are exquisite.
Deacon King Kong by James McBride (F). This novel set in the 1960’s tells the story of events occurring after an elderly, drunk, church Deacon, named Sportcoat, shoots one of the young drug dealers in his Brooklyn neighborhood. There is a whole host of entertaining and colorful characters who help move along the intertwining plot.
Emily Nichols Grossi:
In Pursuit of Disobedient Women: A Memoir of Love, Rebellion, and Family, Far Away by Dionne Searcey (NF). Searcey was West Africa bureau chief for the NY Times from 2015-19, and this is about that experience. While I’m not sure the book matches the title, or vice versa, I did enjoy it. It’s been hard for me to concentrate on most reading during corona life, but I love Africa, knew little about Dakar, and very much enjoyed reading about her travels, colleagues, and experiences in Senegal and further afield. Boko Haram, gender equality, gender roles in marriage, parenting while trying to maintain a career…all fascinating stuff.
Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Familyby Robert Kolker (NF). Fascinating book, for all the reasons we’ve discussed.
Paradise Alley by Kevin Baker (F).
Less by Andrew Sean (HF).
*****The Overstory: A Novel by Richard Powers(F)***** This book has been described as “an impassioned work of activism and resistance;” “a hymn to Nature’s grandeur;” and “a monumental work of environmental fiction.” It won the 2019 Pulitzer and short-listed for 2018 Man Booker. I resisted reading it, and now I can’t forget it.
The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope by Jonathan Alter(NF). Not much new information but a thoughtful perspective on leadership in a time of crisis. Writes Alter: FDR had many attributes and methods that in the hands of a different person (Alter mentions Huey Long) would have turned out quite differently. Doesn’t take much imagination to extend the analogy.
A Bolt from the Blue and Other Essays by Mary McCarthy (NF). This collection of Mary McCarthy’s insightful and witty essays, including theatre reviews, book reviews, and essays, covers such subjects as Eugene O’Neill, Salinger, and Simone de Beauvoir.
Adventures in the Screen Trade by William Goldman (NF). This autobiographical book provides insight into how movies scripts are written and how movies are made. Very eye-opening.
The Paladin by David Ignatius (F). Hi tech computer hacking with a great spy story as the setting. Page turner for me. Read in two days. I have a lot of time.
If it Bleeds by Stephen King (F). Four short stories with King’s amazing insights into the human psyche.
Zoey & Sassafras Series by Asia Citro (F). They are a series of books featuring a young girl – Zoey – and her cat, Sassafras. Zoey and her mom have the ability to see magical creatures, they come to the house for help, and Zoey uses the scientific method to help the animals. The books are amazing, and it’s really helped Miriam (age 6) to think about things in a scientific way. She has loved the books and has incorporated them into her daily life, noticing that aphids were eating our bean plants, whereupon she informed me that we needed to get ladybugs – just like Zoey did!
The Seven & Half Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton (F). I read this several months ago, and I loved it. It’s a great melding of sci-fi and mystery, my two favorite genres. The book starts out as a typical English murder mystery, but quickly delves into sci-fi as they days repeat.
Reading Susan Rice’s Tough Love (NF) right now and loving it. Remarkable person. An easy read. And interesting to read what really happened during significant events in our recent history…when we had an administration that acted with intelligence and careful thought. May those days return in November.
The Overstoryby Richard Powers(F).These beautifully written stories about different people and the role that trees play in their lives are especially captivating when you learn how some of them are connected in the end.
Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable (NF). I found this biography to be totally absorbing. In addition to examining Malcolm X and the civil rights movement, the book contains many insights about the dynamics of political and social radicalism that I found relevant to thinking about a very broad range of contemporary issues.
Sherlock Holmes, Consulting Detective by Space Cowboys (F). I’m kind of pushing it on this one, but I think it counts. A set of extremely detailed and well-crafted choose-your-own adventure novels. (It’s technically a board game, but everything is presented in the form of books.) You explore London to solve mysteries: each one takes a few hours to solve and you can do them with family/friends or by yourself – a very good way to spend an evening during quarantine.
Highly recommend Michael Beschloss’s Presidents of War (NF), an excellent and wonderfully written study of the use and expansion of presidential power. Who knew that presidential overreach began with the otherwise undistinguished James K. Polk? And guess who was the son of Capt. George Morison, leader of US naval forces during the Gulf of Tonkin incident?
Also recommend The Spies of Warsaw by Alan Furst(F) or any of his spy novels set in Europe on the eve of World War II. Furst fills his books with attractive characters in murky situations. He has a mordant sense of humor and like his mentor, Georges Simenon, can really describe a meal!
American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins (F). There was a lot of hype around this book at the start of the year, and it did not disappoint. It may not have been 100% accurate in portraying the agonizing plight of the refugees coming to America, but it was compelling, well written, and a great story.
The Wedding Giftby Marlen Bodden (HF) – The Wedding Gift is an intimate portrait of slavery and the 19th Century south that will leave readers breathless.
The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah (F) – A little violent with domestic abuse, but it is set in Alaska and keeps your interest from the beginning.
The Man in the Red Coat by Julian Barnes (NF). This is about a famous painting by Sargent which you have probably seen. The story about the man, Dr. Pozzi, is a history of the times with famous and unforgettable characters. If you like history and culture, this is a fun read by a great author.
Levels of Life by Julian Barnes (NF). This is partly autobiographical and partly history which is how he likes to analyze subjects. His wife died very suddenly. He writes about grief in a most literary and poignant way, and if you ever need to look at grief for understanding, this is the best book I have ever read on the subject.
Kook: What Surfing Taught Me About Love, Life, and Catching the Perfect Wave by Peter Heller (NF).
Spirit Run: A 6,000-Mile Marathon Through North America’s Stolen Land by Noe Alvarez (NF).
Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded by Simon Winchester (NF)., On August 27, 1883 the volcano island of Krakatoa, Indonesia blew five cubic miles of dirt 12 miles into the air with an explosion heard 3,000 miles away, that utterly flattened or buried all the towns within 20 miles, that generated tsunami waves that circled the globe seven times and killed 30,,000 and whose dust blanket created amazing sunsets and caused the earth’s temperature to drop by two degrees thereby destroying crops everywhere. The author, a professor of geology at Oxford, details the history of this event with a lucid explanation of the forces that create plate tectonics, the way many kinds of volcanoes work, the immediate impact of the largest noise ever heard by human beings (equivalent to more than one billion atomic bombs), and the rebirth of life on this shattered lifeless island.
How the Irish Save Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role From the Fall of the Roman Empire to the Rise of Medieval Europe by Thomas Cahill (NF). As the Roman Empire began to collapse and withdrew from the British Isles and Northern Europe, this left a void in scholarship in many areas of Western Civilization. With libraries and universities closed and general education greatly reduced, there was a very strong possibility that Western intellectual thought would collapse and very little would be passed on to history. To the surprise of many, Irish Monks under the leadership of St. Patrick set out to copy and thereby save all the books they could find…and they were successful. This is that story about how significant numbers of important books were preserved and were available to fuel the Renaissance five hundred years later.
The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way by Bill Bryson. (NF). English is spoken by so many because it blends so many languages, but this history creates many mysteries about how this all merged to create the world’s most used language. Bryson has a knack for coming up with the perfect factlet to illustrate a point and keep the exposition lively and informative. As a person captivated by meandering searches through the dictionary and thesaurus, for me this was a 5/5 book all the way.
I never read the original Dracula by Bram Stoker (F) before this year, so it’s not a reread, but it is an oldie but goody which I definitely recommend. Maybe if you call it “Oldies But Goodies,” you can include all those books one meant to read but never had time for, plus the rereads.
Drive Your Plow Over The Bones of the Deadby Olga Tokarczuk (F). I picked up this small book( 270 pages) and could not put it down until I saw the mystery solved. The writers style and views about life, the privileges of gender, wealth and power will give us a great deal to discuss. This book was made into a movie titled Pokot which was directed by Agnieska Holland. It premiered at the Berlin festival where it won the top award.
My Penguin Year: Life Among the Emperors by Lindsay McCrae (NF). British photographer Lindsay McCrae spent a full year in Antarctica documenting a year in the life of an Emperor penguin colony, as well as his own surprisingly action-packed year. The book that came out of his experience is a great read, and his photographs are stunning.
I’ve been supposed to read Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain (NF) since my college mentor recommended it more than a half a century ago. Now I know why: my mentor and Merton both studied English @ Columbia U. w/ the great teacher/critic/poet Mark Van Doren. Merton’s book is engrossing enough, but not for everyone.
Rather, I recommend Van Doren’s monograph Shakespeare (NF), a conversationally written book about each play as if the characters were real people and the events just happened last month.
As I look at the books I have read this year, I realize that I found them all on your annual list which usually forms the basis for my readings. I finally got around to reading Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown (NF) and A Man called Ove by Frederik Backman (F).
Am now reading American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins (F). Although I know it has been panned for being politically incorrect, and she writes in too great a detail about details so I skim that, but the story is interesting and somewhat gripping.
Long Bright Riverby Liz Moore (F). The Kensington District of Philadelphia in the early 2000s became an open-air opioid market, with rampant addiction and young women turning tricks to support their habit. Mickey, a single-mother cop, is concerned that her addicted sister Kasey disappeared and may have been killed or overdosed. The special aspect of the novel is how the opioid epidemic totally affects the lives of the entire community.
The Gone Deadby Chanelle Benz (F). Billie James left the Mississippi Delta in 1973 at age four with her mother when her black poet father died. She returned to the Delta thirty years later to claim her inheritance, including the shack she had lived in. By interacting with people who remained in the community since 1973, Billie began to understand their complex behavior, ultimately establishing that her father’s death was racial, not an accident.
The Spy and the Traitor by Ben Macintyre (NF). Fascinating read if you like cold war type double agent spy intrigue. Carefully detailed and stranger than fiction. True account of Oleg Gordiesky, double agent for M16, working through the KGB.
The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker (F). A small college town mysteriously becomes the site of an unknown pandemic (a sleeping sickness). The book was written pre covid 19. It provides an interesting fictional account of coping with a virus of unknown origin.
Nancy Cedar Wilson:
I just finished Louise Erdrich’s latest – The Night Watchman(F)— based on her grandfather’s journals concerning his battle to save the Tribal Rights of the Chippewa Indians in Minnesota, when they were under attack–led by a self-righteous Mormon Senator in the ’50’s. She develops a fascinating cast of characters, well drawn and believable. It’s great read, filled with mystical Indian lore. I highly recommend this book!
The second book I liked, tho not quite as much, was Isabel Allende’s A Long Petal of The Sea — another book of (F) based on actual historical events — the Spanish Revolution and the more recent, too brief, Chilean Revolution. The whole recording of human aspirations turned into war and dashed hopes of social change, as seen through the eyes and lives of a few memorable characters. It was a rewarding read too!
Two non-fiction books I’ve read over the past two months that I’ve enjoyed very much, though for completely different reasons.
The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz by Erik Larsen (NF). It covers the first year of Winston Churchill’s WW II tenure as prime minister of England, when the threat of a German invasion of England loomed large and Luftwaffe bombing raids were a nightly reality across that nation. The book details Churchill’s leadership and family life during that period (who knew he fancied pink PJ’s), with compelling storytelling that easily pulled me through its 500 pages, night after night.. It’s an example of charismatic leadership that put country first at a time of existential crisis.
Election Meltdown by top election scholar Rick Hasen (NF). It’s spare – not too much more than 100 pages. Written before the pandemic, it details the fragility of how America administers elections, predicting the likely failure points of our system if subject to stress. If horror stories keep you up at night, read it during daytime as we tick down the days to November’s vote.
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (F). The movie was awful – the book was great!
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer (F) – although this one is heavy (they both are) so perhaps wait till things don’t feel so grim.
Inge’s War: A German Woman and Story of Family, Secrets & Survival under Hitler by Svenga O’Donnell (NF). Ellen has written above about this engrossing book. What sets it apart from other books about this period that many of us have read is that its author is not Jewish but is German, and her discovery of her family’s story is captivating. So far, my favorite read (audible) of the year.
My contribution for this month’s book is, again, Mink River by Brian Doyle (F). I’m a couple days into a re-read and am enthralled yet again, this magic place of words, a perfect balm for these reflective days.
I’m also re-reading David McCullough’s John Adams (NF)…important, gripping history dolled out in McCullough’s gift for telling a a fine story. (Ed. note: MucCullough received a Puliter Prize for this biography.)
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens (F). It’s about a young girl growing up in isolation in the marshes off the coast of North Carolina. She learns to survive by observing how the wildlife survive, and she is seen as an outcast and odd girl, although a natural beauty, so she catches the eye of several men and that’s where the plot thickens. I read this while on vacation in Costa Rica, and I could hardly put it down.
Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation that Starts in Your Yard by Douglas Tallamy (NF). Basic premise of the book: the combined acreage of the National Parks totals about 20 Million; our combined lawns take up 40 million acres; why not convert lawns to conservation corridors and wildlife habitats? It’s so easy to be pessimistic about climate change and our declining ecosystem, but here are some practical things we can do and Chapters 10 and 11 have lots of good details and suggestions. Right now, this is the best book, in my humble opinion (as a Master Naturalist and Tree Steward), of practical conservation that’s doable.
De Gaulle by Julian T. Jackson (NF) This biography of Charles De Gaulle is truly fantastic.
What Shamu Taught Me about Life, Love and Marriage by Amy Sutherland (NF). What contemporary techniques for training other animals tell us about dealing with dealing with adult humans. Funny, short and insightful.
The Looming Tower:Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 by Lawrence Wright (NF). A masterpiece, winner of the Pulitzer Prize. A history of al-Qaeda to 9/11. Among many high points, the book recounts the uses of religion to justify mass murder, mass attacks on civilians of all faiths, and genocide. A grippingly reported narrative; indispensable.
Essays in Ethics by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (NF). Our Rabbi, who is from England, gave it (to me). and I’m reading it as if it was a piece of chocolate cake… but dieting– slowly and savoring each bite.
The Rabbi by Rabbi Telushin (NF). He came to NO Chabad and was a great speaker. Reads quickly.
Lucifer Principle by Howard Bloom (NF). It’s non-fiction and sort of but not quite social science. Fascinating.
When God Had a Wife: The Fall and Rise of the Sacred Feminine in the Judeo-Christian Tradition by Lynn Picknett & Clive Prince (NF).
God Save Texas by Lawrence Wright (NF). I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Less by Andrew Sean Greer (F). It’s a book about a 50 year old, white gay man living in my neighborhood in SF. I mean, perfect for me right? And I did enjoy it. It was only after that I recalled it won the Pulitzer Prize and that I didn’t really understand. Enjoyable book; not earth shattering enough to win such a monumental prize. Huh.
Wow, No Thank You by Samantha Irb (NF). She’s kind of a “literally thing” these days, and I enjoyed her latest, best-selling collection of essays. Super raw and honest and funny. Again, not earth shattering, but I was always happy to return to the book.
Two months ago now I asked for MillersTime readers to send in a favorite read that you had since the beginning of 2020 (and a favorite listen if you listen to books on tape/audible). Thirty-seven of you responded, and the result was Favorite Reads in Time of Self-Isolation, April 2020.
Now let’s do that again.
Here’s the drill this time: From either the last two months or, if you wish, going back to Jan. 1, pick TWO favorite reads (and up to TWO favorite listens) to share with each other. These should be different ones from any you sent in previously.
Send me the title, author, and whether the book is fiction (F) or nonfiction (NF).
Write just three sentences about each favorite read or listens so others may know more than just the title.
Send me your contributions over the next week, by May 25th, so I can compile them and post them at the beginning of June. Use my email (Samesty84@gmail.com) to convey your two choices.
Please follow these few instructions as it makes my job of compiling the list easier. If you only have one book or one listen, that’s fine too.
Thanks to each of the individuals below who responded to my appeal for a new version of MillesTime Readers Favorite Books – one book read over the last several months that stood out for the reader among all the others read (or listened to).
Hands down, I’ve been totally intrigued by The Body: A Guide for Occupants byBill Bryson (NF).While the man radiates obsessive compulsion, it’s balanced by his totally entertaining writing style. His descriptions of viruses is fascinatingly informative and timely as is his writing on diseases. I have learned a lot and enjoyed each “chapter-lectures”.
One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear Warby Michael Dobbs (NF). Written in 2009, this is a non-fiction thriller about how the United States and the Soviet Union came to the brink of nuclear conflict over the placement of Soviet missiles in Cuba. Read this for a George Washington University class on the Cold War. Chilling to think what would be if this happened with Trump in the White House.
The Cartiers: The Untold Story by Francesca Cartier Brickell (NF). A fascinating story of the creation of the Cartier stores told by the granddaughter of the 5th generation of Cartiers to work with/in/for the stores. Francesca found an old, dusty trunk in her grandfather’s basement, went through the papers diligently, talked to her grandfather, Jean-Jacques Cartier, and writes a fascinating tale of growing a jewelry empire, creating the jewels, selling them the rich and famous, and watching it sold off. It is a fascinating story of the jewelry but also of how it was created, the engineering behind it all, the changing of styles and items to “stay ahead of the crowd”, and how the fourth generation of three brothers worked together and really made it all happen… It is more than a book of creating fabulous jewels (and it is certainly that) but all that went on behind it to make it a great and co-operative grand success . . . then how it fell apart and was sold.
The Reckoning by Jeffrey Pierce (F), a biblical scale Armageddon, spurred by the horror of the First World War, demons rise and take possession of the slain. Author Michael Connolly writes about this book : “Eloquent and hard muscled, deeply researched and defy imagined…It is an entrancing, fantastical journey to the end you will never see coming.” I had the pleasure of reading it and following the audio tape of the actor/author’s voices for all the characters. (Ed. Note: Author is Bill & Kay Plitt’s son!)
The Man I Never Met by Adam Schefter (NF). Sports fans know Adam as the premiere NFL new-breaker; this is a story about his journey to find a soulmate and his now-wife’s journey to overcome losing her first husband in 9/11. The book runs the emotional spectrum from tragic to overjoyed. You don’t need to be a sports fan to read it, but you might want a box of tissues nearby.
Born a Crime by Trevor Noah (NF). This is a quick read about Noah Trevor’s growing up in South Africa. He is a wonderful comedian.
I’ve been enjoying Streak: Joe DiMaggio and the Summer of ‘41by Michael Seidel (NF). It combines interesting stories of a baseball nature with concurrent world events of the day. I’ll second the suggestion of Brian Doyle’s Mink River. It’s not everybody’s cup of tea as demonstrated by the negative reviews/letters that Brian faithfully/gleefully saved and which I had the pleasure of hearing his widow read at Powell’s Books not too long ago.
The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski (F).The Last Wish is a collection of fictional short stories in the Fantasy genre, collected and published together in 2008, which should be read first if you wish to read the published works in narrative chronological order (as opposed to the published order). This collection of stories is also the primary source material for the eponymous Netflix series, The Witcher. After watching the first season of that show, I became enamored with the world Mr. Sapkowski had created and started reading the source material.
American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins (F). Wasn’t sure I was going to like this but could not put it down.Wife of journalist, who exposes the drug cartels in Acapulco and flees with son as migrants to the US. Gripping, scary, yet a mother’s love for son propels her to take unbelievable risks. A good read!
Catch and Kill by Ronan Farrow (NF). Audio, read by Farrow himself it’s about his investigative journalistic effort to expose Harvey Weinstein. Farrow gets over 200 interviews to discover the truth. NBC’s coverup efforts of Weinstein and Matt Lauer are terribly disturbing. Admire Farrow’s tenacity and courage. History now values his efforts.
Shining Light on Transcendence – The Unconventional Journey of a Neuroscientistby Peter Fenwick (NF). Written by this distinguished British scientist and scholar now 84 years of age contains perhaps his most compelling and inspirationalwriting ever. Fenwick laments that the generally accepted view of science “equates consciousness with mind and sees both as a function of the brain.”He states that the prevailing scientific view is that the mind and brain are identical or that mind is created by the brain, and he makes it clear that this is not his view.
Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield (F) Audio and Print. Good old fashion storytelling at its best! Set in 19th century England in a village on the banks of the Thames, it is a story of science, magic, folklore and fairy tale…a magical mystery tour of miraculous explanations and a chain of revelations as three families claim (a young girl) as their long lost kin.
Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger (F). It is a beautiful book! It is about the 13th summer in the life of the narrator, recalled about 30 years later in a elegant “whodunit”. The cadence of the book somehow captures the confusion and the concerns of that summer and the beauty of life.
Deacon King Kong by James McBride (F). This latest book is superb, filled with characters (sometimes hard to keep track of!), tone, and language that is brilliant, and a story to keep you moving. It tells the story of a crotchety, alcoholic old church deacon, Sportcoat, (a crazy and wise old man) who one day wanders into the courtyard of his housing project in South Brooklyn and shoots the project’s drug dealer. There’s a lot of humor in this book along with compassion and hope, and I highly recommend it.
Abigailby Magda Szabo (F). Audio. This is also a repeat author for me as Szabo is a stunning novelist. This book was written in 1970, but translated only recently, and tells the story of the teen-age girl, growing up during World War II and as the war intensified her father sends her away to boarding school — a strict religious institution where she had a very hard time fitting in. The story tells what happened to her there, a life-changing story, and one that is hard to put down; the writing is fluid and eloquent, the pace focused and intense, the audio version was well performed, and I loved it.
Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara (F). It is a story told from the point of view of a 9 year old boy, Jai, living with his family in a “basti” slum outside a big city in India. Children are disappearing one by one, and Jai and his friends become detectives to help find them. The book is a heartbreaking, but the characters are so well described and the dialogue is totally charming.
Emily Nichols Grossi:
American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins (F). This novel, about a Mexican woman and her son escaping cartel violence in Acapulco by attempting to get to el norte, is riveting, horrific, gorgeous, educational, and unforgettable. It’s nearly 400 pages long, and I read it in maybe two days; I couldn’t, and didn’t want to, put it down. You may have heard about the backlash against American Dirt, based on Cummins’ being only partly Latina: who gets to tell whose stories? Here is a good article about the controversy, but nonetheless, I found the book magnificent and moving and think it’s absolutely worth reading.
The Convert by Stefan Hertmans (F). Using the same technique he did to great effect in War and Turpentine to mingle past with present, this time (Hertmans) tackles a tragic story from the 11th century of a Christian girl who marries a Jewish boy; she converts and thereafter for the rest of her life, faces the wrath of her father as she flees from his knights. History comes alive as we follow him and her through ancient cities and unimaginable circumstances. Hertmans based his story on a scrap of a document found in the genizah (storeroom) of the Ben Ezra synagogue in Cairo, and his book is a scholarly work of fiction, my favorite category.
The Institute by Steven King (F). It’s scary because it could really happen An excellent read that I couldn’t wait to get back to it every time I put it down.
The Light Between the Oceans by M.L. Stedman (HF). I haven’t finished because it’s narrative layout makes me face issues to hard to read more than a chapter a night. You’ll see. You’ll get deep into it with hints along the way that will make it impossible to just keep turning pages. I’ll finish Sunday night, less than 50 pages to go, and I don’t see anyway this can end well.
The Body: A Guide for Occupants by Bill Bryson (NF). I never cease to wonder at how Bryson comes up with factoids that both amuse and inform.
The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich (F). Audio. This audiobook is read by the author, and while I’ve enjoyed all of her books, this might be my favorite.
Ahab’s Wife:Or, The Star-Gazer by Sena Jeter Naslund (HF).
Jesse Leigh Maniff:
The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Definance During the Blitz by Erik Larson (NF). (The author) documents Churchill’s first year as Prime Minister.
I just finished Strangers in the House: A Prairie Story of Bigotry and Belonging by Candace Savage (F). I had trouble following this story at first, then realized it was because of my ignorance of Canadian history and geography. After moving into a house in Saskatoon and finding intriguing ‘found objects’ inside the walls during a renovation, she traces the history of the family who built the house and uncovers a level of prejudice and ethnic violence that I had no idea had existed in Canada. Very well written; the second half is easier to follow than the first.
This Tender Land by William Kent Krueger (HF). It is set in Minnesota in 1932 and chronicles the tale and relationship between two orphaned brothers as they first weather life at the “school” for Native American boys and then flee and venture out on their own journey. Along the way, they meet many people who further the story and help develop the characters and brothers’ relationship. It is pretty long, but really good.
The Overstory by Richard Powers (F). Just finished… it’s about the destruction of forests and is a parallel play about today’s times. The obvious is in front of us, and people continue to deny and do stupid things. Excellent read.
Re-reading The Map That Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology by Simon Winchester (NF). Smith, a canal digger in England in 1793, discovered he could follow layers of rock all over England, and he spent 22 years doing that and creating a map of the country’s geological roots. In 1815, this map was published in a full-color 5 foot by 8 foot book and turned the scientific and the religious world up side down. Clear explanation, excellent lively narrative, and lots of detail and asides to create context, five stars for content and presentation.
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk (F). A good book to get lost in by a Polish author and winner of the Nobel Prize for literature. It’s an engaging story – cum mystery – about an eccentric Polish woman living in a remote village beset by some unusual deaths in which animals seem to be taking revenge on their human tormentors.
The Red Daughter by John Burnham Schwartz (HF). I loved this historical fiction about Joseph Stalin’s complex daughter who defected to the US – great background to the Cold War era told with an innovative narrative technique and psychological insight.
Born a Crime by Trevor Noah (NF). I have always been interested in Africa so I was drawn to this memoir of Trevor Noah’s life in Johannesburg during apartheid. He had quite a life as a boy, considering what he is doing now. What I liked most is that his story took my mind off COVID-19 so I’d fall asleep thinking of other things!
My newest favorite heroine detective is Veronica Speedwell (first book in the series) A Curious Beginning by Deanna Raybourn (F). Feisty, smart, and set in the late 1800s London. Five books and counting, so makes a lovely little escape for a week or so depending on how quickly you can read these days.
(ALSO, plug for bookshop.org — a new website set up as an independent bookstore competitor to Amazon. It’s brand new and still in beta, but very VERY worth a gander and a purchase.)
A Day in the Bleachers by Arnold Hano (age 98!) (NF). With no games to watch, I enjoyed his account of the game containing “the catch.” Wes Westrum, Whitey Lockman, Alvin Dark, along w/ The Say Hey Kid; these guys & the others refreshed in my memory by this book were my first team. When I read the dimensions of the Polo Grounds now (which I didn’t know when I was 6), I am appalled (and a little thrilled).
The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Daré (F). The novel focuses on Adunni, an intelligent and likeable 14 year old girl in a rural Nigerian village whose mother wanted her to get an education so that she could speak for herself with a Louding Voice to determine her future. Unfortunately, her mother died and her father was hopelessly poor and married Adduni for bride money from an older man with two wives who wanted a son heir….The book is fast-paced, and it is never clear whether Adunni would survive, let alone be victorious…
The Water Dancer by Ta-Nahesi Coates (F).
From Third World to First: The Singapore Story:1985-2000 by Lee Kuan Yew (NF). In conjunction with our recent trip to SE Asia, I began to learn about this city-state and more particularly its founding, visionary father, Lee Kuan Yew, and wondered how I had not known anything about either. The story of Singapore and this autobiography has affected me more than anything I’ve read about the world beyond the US. It’s 683 pages that I read in a couple of days, and I hope to say more about that as time goes on.
No Visable Bruises: What we don’t Know About Domestic Violence Can Kill Us by Rachel Louise Snyder (NF). Audio. Worth the time. Didn’t expect to learn so much, about why and how individuals abuse, why victims stay in relationships, why it is so difficult for victims to escape, and about individuals and groups working on this issue.
Mink River by Brian Doyle (F). When I asked my local guy, Eric, at Pegasus Books in W. Seattle – used and new books – or a second recommendation after his first of A Gentleman In Moscow, he recommended Mink River.“I love this book,” he said, and so did I, a mix of stream of conscious narrative, humor, a good story, evocation of terrain on the Oregon Coast, and two wonderful wacky characters. It’s a love of a book.
Blood: Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou (NF). The story of Stanford dropout Elizabeth Holmes and the unicorn wunder startup Theranos — instant complex blood analysis from a finger prick — until the company crashed and burned. Stunning and enthralling. It made me want to stay up all night reading it.
I have finally finished a wonderful biography, Rebbe by Joseph Teleshukin (NF). The Chabad movement, has had a significant impact on the Jewish people, limited, in scope but also to the community at large.
The Night Watchman by Louis Erdrich (F). It may be fiction, however the story is based on Erdrich’s Chippewa grandfather who in the 1950s courageously fought against a bill in Congress that would terminate the reservations. The book also follows the travails of Pixie, as she tries to find her sister in “the cities” – Minneapolis-St Paul. Going back and forth in time, mood and stories, the book is lyrical, heartbreaking and affirming.
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (F). Currently rereading (AK) and forgot how incredible Tolstoy is.
No Ordinary Time by Doris Kearns Goodwin (NF). On my bookshelf are many unread books; I picked No Ordinary Times this month because it explores the human story of how Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt worked together and apart as the country went through the late Depression and early World War II years. Kearns explores well how Franklin and Eleanor made their separate and joint decisions. While reading, I cannot help but compare how our country and the current occupant of the White House are making decisions in our current crisis
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Finally, if you missed sending one this time, no problem. I’m going to do this again for the beginning of June.
So any time between now and Memorial Day, May 25th, please send me up to TWO books (and two audio ones if you do that) that have been favorites since the beginning of 2020. And please consider adding your comments on what you send in THREE sentences on each book.
“A Best Friend Is Someone Who Gives Me a Book I’ve Never Read”- A. Lincoln
Each year, this post is always my favorite. It combines my love of reading with the opportunity to stay in touch with friends all around the country. My hope is that each of you will find a book or books that will bring pleasure in the months ahead. And I look forward to hearing from you about what you find here that is a good read.
This 2019 list is comprised of the favorite reads of 82 adults and six children (ages 2+ to almost 11). Slightly more contributors (51%-49%) were female, about the same as last year. There were an equal amount of fiction and nonfiction books cited. (Last year, nonfiction led fiction 53%-47%, and all the previous nine years fiction led nonfiction.)
I’ve organized the post in three ways:
I. The Books that have been cited by multiple readers are listed first.
II. Next, the Contributors are listed alphabetically by first name — to make it easy if you are looking for the favorites of someone you know — with the titles and authors next, followed by any comments they made about those books.
III.Finally, a Spread Sheetis arranged in alphabetical order by the first name of the Contributor for quick reference. You can print out this alphabetical list of the MillersTime Contributors whose names are followed by Book Title, Author, and whether it is Fiction (F) or nonfiction (NF).
Also, at the end of this post, I’ve linked to the yearly lists beginning in 2009, just in case you need more suggestions or want to know what you or others favored in the past.
I. Titles that appear on more than one reader’s list.
A Woman Is No Man, Etaf Fum
Before We Were Yours, Lisa Wingate
Bruno, Chief of Police Mysteries, Martin Walker
Evvie Drake Starts Over, Linda Holmes
Little Fires Everywhere, Celeste Ng
Machines Like Me, Ian McEwan
No-No Boy, John Okada
Normal People, Sally Rooney
Olive Again, Elizabeth Strout
Someone Knows My Name, Lawrence Hill
Stoner, John Williams
The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison
The Dutch House, Ann Patchett
The Great Alone, Kristin Hannah
The Heart’s Invisible Furies, John Boyne
The Nickel Boys, Colin Whitehead
The Other Americans, Laila Lalami
The Overstory, Richard Powers
The Water Dancer, Ta-Nehisi Coates
Washington Black, Esi Edugyan
Where the Crawdads Sing, Delia Owens
American Prison, Shane Bauer
Bad Blood, John Carreyrou
Becoming, Michelle Obama
Being Mortal, Atul Gawande
Catch and Kill, Ronan Farrow
Educated, Tara Westover
Furious Hours, Casey Cep
Grant, Ron Chernow
Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson
Leadership in Turbulent Times, Doris Kearns Goodwin
As always, this post would not be possible without the participation of friends (and friends of friends) who have taken the time to share with me and others titles and comments about what you are reading and enjoying. Think of it as a ‘community’ of readers even if some of you do not know each other. I thank you all for responding to my ‘gentle reminders.’
This 2019 mid-year list is comprised of the favorite reads of 53 adults and 5 small children (10, 8, 6, 3, and almost 2 years of age.) Surprisingly, at least to me, this year nonfiction choices lead fiction 54% to 46%, a reversal of every previous compilation over the past 10+ years. Fifty-seven per cent of the contributors are female, 43% male, a typical breakdown.
I’ve organized the post in three ways:
I. The Books that have been cited by multiple readers are listed first.
II. Next, the Contributors are listed alphabetically by first name — to make it easy if you are looking for the favorites of someone you know — with the titles and authors next and then any comments they made about those books.
III. Two Spread Sheets for quick reference and in case you want to print out either list for future use:
Spread Sheet #1 – Listed by the Contributor’s Name, then Title, Author, & Fiction/Nonfiction
Spread Sheet # 2 – Listed by Book Title, then Author, Contributor, & Fiction/Nonfiction
Also, at the end of this post, I’ve linked to the Midyear and Final lists from 2018, just in case you need more suggestions than those in this Midyear post.
I. Titles that appear on more than one reader’s Favorites’ List.
Beartown, Fredrick Backman
Before We Were Yours, Lisa Wingate
Beneath the Scarlet Sky, Mark Sullivan
Little Fires Everywhere, Celeste Ng
The Lost Man, Jane Harper
Machines Like Me, Ian McEwan
The Heart’s Invisible Furies, John Boyne
Washington Black, Esi Edugyan
The Weight of Ink, Rachel Kadish
Where the Crawdads Sing, Delia Owens
An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago, Alex Kotlowitz
Bad Blood: Secrets & Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup, John Carreyrou
Becoming, Michelle Obama
Born a Crime, Trevor Noah
Educated, Tara Westover
K: A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches, Tyler Kepner
Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder & Memory in Northern Ireland. Patrick Radden Keefe,
The Library Book, Susan Orlean
Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing, Robert A. Caro
Rather than wait until I do a mid-year round up of readers’ favorite reads for the first half of 2018, I thought I’d mention four books that I’ve recently read and thoroughly enjoyed and might have interest for others.
All four are from suggestions by MillersTime readers, and all four are non-fiction, generally my reading of preference.
Lab Girl by Hope Jahren (NF) – Recommended by Ellen Hoff & Suzanne Stier.
Ellen H. wrote: “ A pure research scientist who writes well about her own adventures in science, her life, and, fascinating to me, bits of botany. If you are interested in botany, skip her struggle with mental disorders. If you are not interested in botany, some fascinating bits on her curiosity and fascination with pure research and asking new questions, and the struggles facing research scientists in finding funding and developing a lab.”
Suzanne S. wrote: “This book goes at the top of my list. It is a combination of science about trees and plants and a memoir by Hope about her journey as a scientist and her relationship with a man named Bill…who is her soul mate/twin/co-conspirator…The book is serious and funny and well written. A must read for all.”
Me: I listened to Hope Jahren’s narration of her book and that added immeasurably to my enjoyment as I felt she was basically talking directly to me. Certainly the best memoir I have ‘read’ in years. If you read and enjoyed H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, one of my favorites from last year, you’ll certainly enjoy Lab Girl. If you didn’t read Macdonald’s book, you now have two wonderful books in store for you.
Ghosts of the Tsunami: Death and Life in Japan’s Disaster Zone by Richard Lloyd Parry (NF) – Recommended by Ellen Miller.
Ellen M.: “This is the story of the Tsunami that on March 11, 2011 hit the northwest coast of Japan, killing more than 18,500 people. It focuses particularly on the personal stories of several families and one community focusing on accountability for deaths in one school. It is heartbreaking.”
Me: I ‘resisted’ reading this exploration of the consequences of the Tsunami, doubting it would be of interest to me. How wrong I was. The author does a brilliant job of not just describing what happened but also of going inside the Japanese culture to give insights and understandings into a world that is often closed to outsiders.
The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tiva Bailey (NF) – Recommended by Melanie Landau.
Melanie: “Fascinating, meditative. Account of minutely observing a tiny snail while bed ridden and ill.”
Me: Snails? Another account of something I never thought I’d have interest in. Wrong again. A wonderful story/memoir and most enlightening both about the author and about these little creatures.
Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu by Joshua Hammer (NF) – Recommended by Abigail Wiebenson.
Abigail wrote: “A totally fascinating story of saving thousands of ancient manuscripts in Mali which becomes entangled in the jihadi movement all of which the author describes with spell-binding dexterity.”
Me: Despite a totally misleading title, I found myself immersed in a true tale about so much I never knew, not only about manuscripts and the written word but also about the jihadi incursions and exploits outside of the middle east.
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If you are not already keeping track of books you’ve enjoyed/are enjoying, please consider doing so. In June, I will ask for books readers have most enjoyed over the first half of 2018, which I will then post in July.
“A Best Friend Is Someone Who Gives Me a Book I’ve Never Read”- A. Lincoln
Here are all, in one place, the 2017 mid-year favorite books by MillersTime readers.
The first ten in this list were not in earlier posts. They are followed by the ones I posted earlier.
New Additions to the List:
I’ve enjoyed many of the same books already listed by others, including:
The Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story by Douglas Preston (NF).
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi (NF).
Between Them: Remembering My Parents by Richard Ford (NF). [audiobook]
A Gentleman in Moscow: A Novel by Amor Towles (F). [audiobook]
Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag (F). [audiobook]
Swing Time by Zadie Smith (F).
Moonglow by Michael Chabon (F). [audiobook]
Two biographies that have captivated me are Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow (NF) [audiobook]; and Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt by H.W. Brands (NF), which I’m still reading.
A novelist new to me this year is Rachel Cusk, author of a trilogy about a British writer whom we get to know mostly through her encounters with others. The first two novels in the trilogy are Outline by Rachel Cusk (F); and Transit by Rachel Cusk (F), and I’m looking forward to the third.
This year I have read many of the books written by Lisa See, a Chinese-American author of historical fiction. She has written numerous books highlighting stories about Chinese characters and culture, and illuminating the strong bonds between women. Her stories are in depth and fascinating and shine the light on little known topics, and a culture that proves fascinating. Her research is impeccable, and deep, including travel to China to remote areas to research her stories. She has won numerous awards and is a NY Times Bestselling author. The books are both engaging and characters well developed; at times the stories are painful and sad, but culturally revealing.
Books I’ve read so far are: Sun Flower and the Secret Fan, Shanghai Girls, Dreams of Joy, China Dolls by Lisa See (All F).
Killing the Rising Sun by Bill O’Reilly & Martin Dugard (NF). It’s a story every American should read. Like his other books, it does not disappoint. The background of the dropping of the Atomic Bomb to end WW2 is riveting, and the sequence of events carefully shared. I learned volumes about our history, as I have in his other books.
Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly (F). It’s the story of 3 women whose lives converge during WW2. It highlights actual events in US and Germany during the wartime and provides a different perspective about war through the female viewpoint whose lives were impacted by war. Their destinies converged around Ravensbruk, Hilter’s Concentration Camp for women. The story is based on the lives of real people and highlights love, redemption and years of secrets.
The Garden of the Finzi-Continis by Giorgio Bassani (F). A novel about a man’s fascination with the garden of an eccentric Jewish family in Italy just prior to WWII. The novel’s tension results from the knowledge by the reader that the family will end up in a concentration camp. Published some time ago but an Italian classic.
Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire by Kay Redfield Jamison (NF). Thus study, although overlong, is a fascinating study of bipolar disease combined with poetic genius, by the author of An Unquiet Mind.
I loved The Rent Collector by Camron Wright (F).
Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift (F) was good.
Let There Be Water by (NF) is a good read.
I just wrapped up 3 audiobooks I’d been working on all year:
Americanah by Chimananda Ngozi Adichie (F) was another read in my quest to understand/fathom race in America, esp. blackness in America. I actually prefer fiction as the vehicle for that, over non-fiction, since fundamentally I’m looking for stories over data (which is not typical for me). Anyone who reads this should get the audiobook version, just so they can hear the narrator’s delightful Nigerian-American English, as well as the correct pronunciation of Igbo.
I didn’t like Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance (NF) at first and put it on pause for some time. Most people I talked to said the first part was the most interesting, but I was more taken by the middle/final parts. Again, the stories here are more interesting than the data, but Vance does a good job of weaving them together. As a side note, I thought it was interesting that his advisor at Yale law was Amy Chua, she of the Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, who convinced him to write the book. I think I saw a joint interview with them in The Atlantic. However, while I expected to come away with more empathy for rural working class folks, I found the internal contradictions that Vance lays out to be really frustrating, rather than relatable. That is unusual for me.
I picked up The Idiot by Elif Batuman (F) because I heard it was about a college student studying linguistics at an elite private school in the mid-90s, which is *almost* me. It was surreal – I was interested, I was engaged, but the plot didn’t really develop. Nobody wanted anything, everything just happened, for no discernible reason. Then the protagonist’s freshman year was over. There were a few insights on the immigrant experience, but overall, things just “were” or “happened”, but I still wanted to finish. Not typical for me.
Lydia Hill Slaby:
How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barret (NF). I’ve been reading and enjoying this one. Otherwise, it’s been a quiet year in Lake Wobegon.
I strongly recommend folks check out Andrew Mayne (the most recent book of his that I read wasOrbital (F), and I gave it 4 of 5 stars. It was a sequel to an earlier novel: Station Breaker (F). He has written a wide variety of books, across genres, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed every single one of his books that I’ve read (I think I’ve read his entire bibliography except two so far). So I’d like to recommend folks check out anything by him.
Bad Blood by John Sanford (F). Murder mystery.
Fatso. Story by and about Art Donovan (NF). Ex Baltimore Colt lineman. “When Men Were Men.”
Uh-Oh: Some Observations From Both Sides of the Refrigerator Doorby Robert Fulghum (NF). The guy who learned everything he needed, in kindergarten.
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (F). Life through the eyes of an African intellectual.
The Greatest Stories Never Told by Rick Byer (NF). The real strange true history, about how the world’s events unfolded.
Five Easy Decades by Dennis McDougal (NF). How Jack Nicholson became the world’s biggest movie star.
General Richard Montgomery and the American Revolution: From Redcoat to Rebel by Hal T. Shelton (NF). A book that would only interest me about Gen. Montgomery, a friend of George Washington, killed in the Revolutionary War, and an ancestor of my mother.
Faithful Place (three stars) and The Secret Place (four stars) both by Tanya French and both (NF).
Currently reading Into the Water by Paula Hawkings (F) which I would recommend, but so far it is about 3 stars.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer (F).
The Silent Wife by A.S.A. Harrison (F).
Tanya Chernov Smith:
I only have one recommendation that isn’t a “how-to-get-your-baby-to-sleep” guide:
The Last American Man by Elizabeth Gilbert (NF). At a time when American politics have many of us considering life off the grid, this true story of a mountain man provides a special brand of comfort. Eustace Conway left his comfortable suburban home at 17 to move into the Appalachian Mountains, where he has since lived off the land. A charismatic and romantic figure, both brilliant and tormented, brave and contradictory, restless and ambitious, Conway has always seen himself as a “Man of Destiny” whose goal is to convince modern Americans to give up their materialistic lifestyles and return with him back to nature.
Madness, Rack, and Honey by Mary Ruggle (NF). This was a NYTimes rec for the previous year. The author is a poet and her observations are written in a beautiful style and language.
The Best American Essays 2016 Ed. by Jonathan Franzen (NF). Not the best year but they are always good; not that many from the New Yorker
Landscapes by John Berger (NF). My favorite art critic who recently died. A collection of his essays on art, travel and the world.
A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women by Siri Hustvedt (NF). Very interesting essays on art and feminism by this author who is also a novelist and scholar. The second half of the book focuses on neuroscience and perception.
Known and Strange Things by Tegu Cole (NF). This is my favorite book of essays, and one I recommend highly. If you aren’t familiar with the author, it will be worth your while. He writes for the NYTimesSunday magazine on photography and art. The book includes other topics such as travel, literature, history and politics.
Commonwealth by Anne Patchett (F). Good.
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles (F). Good.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (F). Very good and still creepy.
Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff (F). Very good.
Any Human Heart by William Boyd (F). Excellent.
The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster (F). Excellent but not for everyone; post-modern
The Little Red Chairsby Edna O ‘Brien (F).
The Blue Guitar by John Banville (F). Good and always a pleasure to read.
The Secret Chord by Gerald Brooks (F). Very good.
The Making of Zombie Wars by Aleksandar Hemon (F). OK, but the author writes so well that I will read anything from him.
“A Best Friend Is Someone Who Gives Me a Book I’ve Never Read”- A. Lincoln
Several years ago I decided waiting until December each year was too long a time between posts that share favorite reads among MillersTime readers. So I started asking in May/June for books you’ve read so far in the year that have particularly resonated with you. And since some of our memories are not quite as sharp as they once were, the idea of having a midyear call for your favorites and a midyear post, I hope, will be useful to all and will continue to be a regular feature here.
I ask that you send me a few that have stood out for you so far, along with a sentence or two of what was particularly appealing. Send them to my email (Samesty84@gmail.com), and when I get at least a dozen or so responses, I’ll post them for other readers to see. I’ll also do a second summer post for those of you who may be too busy to respond in the next couple of weeks (but know you can expect a couple of reminders if you don’t respond to this first appeal).
To start everyone off, both Ellen and I have listed books that we’ve particularly enjoyed since Jan.1, 2017, along with a few sentences about each. (We may have overdone our list here a bit, but remember we are retired, don’t watch TV, and our grand kinder go to bed early.)
If Ellen hadn’t continued to rave about this book, I would not have read it. The title, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, by Isabel Wilkerson (2010), didn’t seem to be something that would interest me.
Fortunately, I followed Ellen’s advice and read and listened to the 640 page nonfiction story of the southern black migration to the Northeast, Midwest and West Coast. I couldn’t put the book down. I found I was learning something on virtually every page I read.
The book covers the exodus and migration of six million blacks within our country between 1915 and 1970. In what was actually an ‘internal migration’ that had significant impacts on both where they came from and where they went, it is a story and a look at history that largely differs from what has previously been written about this movement out of the south and across the country.
In many ways Warmth of Other Suns reminded me of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. As he told the story of the Joads, an ‘Okie’ family that left the Midwest because of the dust storms and ‘moved’ to California, he not only told their story but in what is called ‘interchapters’ explained the history of the times. Just as that book has stayed with me ever since I read it in school, Wilkerson’s book will stay with me.
Wilkerson takes three individuals and follows them from their southern roots to their new homes, giving us an understanding of why these individuals needed to leave the Jim Crow south despite their families having lived there for generations. She follows them on their ‘escape’ by overground railway and, in one case by car, to their new homes. She then tells what happened to each of these three and their families over the next 50+ years of their life.
In preparation for writing Warmth of Other Suns, Wilkerson interviewed more than 1200 individuals before she settled on the three stories in this book. She traveled to each southern home, followed their paths north, and continued to interview the three individuals and their families for many years in their new homes. And similar to Steinbeck, she incorporates what she learned from the 1200 interviews as well as her exploration of census data, newspapers, historical records, etc. into ‘interchapters’ that put these three stories in context.
I’m not sure I’m qualified to agree or disagree with the NY Times about The Warmth of Other Suns being one of the best all time nonfiction books. However, it will certainly be at the top of my list of favorite reads in 2016.