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.
The Library of Congress National Book Festival which has taken place for 19 years in Washington, DC will be virtual this year, September 25-27, 2020.
In one place (on your own Internet ‘device,’ over one weekend) you will be able to hear, see, and interact with some of the authors you no doubt follow and treasure. As opposed to trying to get in line to ‘fight’ the crowds that have now increased every year, you can schedule to hear and to see them on line.
‘Live’ and in Q & A sessions, there are categories that include authors for Children, for Teens, for Family, Food, and Field, Fiction, Genre Fiction, History and Biograpjhy, Poetry and Prose, Science, and Understanding Our World. (See Schedule for names of specific authors and times and dates of their presentations.)
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.
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.
“A Best Friend Is Someone Who Gives Me a Book I’ve Never Read.” – A. Lincoln
This list of favorite reads is comprised of the books most enjoyed in 2018 by 71 adults and five children. Forty-one of them (suggested by thirty-one people) are now on my ‘to read’ list for 2019. (The only way I can read that many, along with other books that will no doubt come to my attention throughout the year, is to fulfill a long considered ‘plan’ of spending a winter in Alaska in front of a fire place. Please don’t mention this to Ellen.)
For the first time since compiling this list (10 years ago!) nonfiction leads the fiction 53% to 47%. Last year those percentages were reversed, and I’m not sure what accounts for the change (aging contributors?). Our youngest participant is almost 18 month’s old; the oldest is approaching the century mark. The rest of you are mostly between the ages of 35- 75. Fifty-five percent of you are women; forty-five percent are men.
While I don’t expect all 76 of you will read all the way through this list (though anyone who does can claim it as a favorite book for next year, assuming you are delighted by the list), know that there is a tremendous amount of information here. Thus, I’ve organized it in several ways, hopefully to make it user friendly:
Section I. The most frequently cited titles (three or more times) are listed first.
Section 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 made about those books.
Section III. Finally, there are also two spread sheet lists (see links below) included as easy, searchable references for you to see the titles, authors, and MillersTime contributors in summary form:
“A Best Friend Is Someone Who Gives Me a Book I’ve Never Read”- A. Lincoln
It’s that time of year again — when I request you share with other readers of MillersTime your most favorite books read over the past 12 months.
Here are a few guidelines that may help in drawing your list and in making my compilation easier:
*When I ask for your Most Favorite Reads of 2017, I’m seeking fiction and/or nonfiction books that stood out for you above all you’ve read in the past year. What have been the most enjoyable, the most important, the 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 have suggested others read?
* You are welcome to send just one title or as many as are truly favorite reads.
* In order to make my work less cumbersome, please do the following:
* List the title, the author, and indicate whether it is fiction (F) or nonfiction (NF).
* I, and most MillersTime readers, seem particularly interested in why a particular book made it to your list this year. Please write a sentence or two, or more, about why each particular book was a favorite for you this year.
* Don’t be concerned about whether others will have the same book(s) on their lists. If we get a number of similar titles, that’s just an indication of the power of a particular book/author.
* Your books do not have to be ones that were written and/or published in 2017, just ones that you read over the past year. If you participated this year in sending titles of books you enjoyed in the first half of 2017, feel free to include one or more of those if they make it to your list of most favorites in 2017.
*If you have listened to a book(s) in one of the various audio formats, Books on Tape, CDs, Audible, etc., and if they meet your definition of books “you’ve enjoyed the most in 2017,” please include those on your list also, This is in addition to the ones you (may) have listed. Be sure to identify which ‘books’ on your list were ones you enjoyed audibly.
* Send me your list in an email (Samesty84@gmail.com) by Dec. 17th so I will be able to post the entire list at the end of the year. (If you send me your list sooner, you may be able to avoid my constant email reminders to do so.)
“A Best Friend Is Someone Who Gives Me a Book I’ve Never read”- A. Lincoln
Each year I identify at least 12 books to add to my ‘to read’ list from the annual Books Most Enjoyed by MillersTime Readers. I generally split them between fiction and nonfiction. Some I choose because several of you have suggested them, some because of the description a reader has written, and some because of the topic (often something I might never have chosen on my own).
The twelve for 2017 (plus two audible books for the treadmill)
The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler
Case Histories by Kate Atkinson
2nd Person Singular by Sayed Kashua (suggested by the oldest contributor to the list – 95 years old).
Between Riverside & Crazy (a play) by Stephen Adly Giurgis
I Will Bear Witness by Victor Kemperer
Strangers in Their Own Land by Allie Russell Hochschild
The Half Has Never Been Told by Edward E. Baptist
A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
White Mountain: Real & Imagined Journeys in the Himalayas by Robert Twigger
I Survived Series by Lauren Tarshis (suggested by the youngest contributor, now eight years old).
Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
To date I have kept my New Year’s resolution to put books I have read on Goodreads as soon as I’ve completed them. Also, as a backup, I am keeping a list of books read in “Notes” on my computer, along with a few sentences on each as I’m continuing to suffer from CRS.
So far in January, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed and can highly recommend The Path Between the Seas by David McCullough, The North Water by Ian McGuire, War & Turpentine by Stefan Heretmans, Do Not Say That We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thiel, The Return: Fathers, Sons, and the Land in Between by Hisham Matar, and Moonglow by Michael Chabon.
Finally, I’d love to know how various readers have used the annual favorites’ list. Have you chosen books from it, and if so, what makes you chose those particular ones? You can leave a note in the Comments’ section of this post or let me know in an email: Samesty84@gmail.com.