The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht
The Balkans is a region of much conflict and confusion. Home to several ethnicities, national identities have shifted through several wars. In this novel, we watch a young woman sifting through her memories, the stories told to her by her grandfather and her current experiences as a doctor crossing borders to care for orphans. All of it has a dream-like quality. The stories are mythic – a tiger’s wife…a deathless man…an elephant walking through a war-ravaged city…love songs played on the gusla by a man deceived in marriage…a little girl with patent leather shoes standing on a railing outside a tiger’s cage, held securely by her loving grandfather. The tales are beautifully told.
We read about Natalia’s grandfather, also a doctor, and the copy of The Jungle Book he was given as a boy and carried until his death. Like Kipling’s book, this novel’s stories are interrelated and capture the imagination. In The Tiger’s Wife – set in a confusing time, in an uncertain state of mind, in a place with shifting borders – we are left to wonder about what is real and what is not. But in the end, we are left knowing there is meaning and truth to be found in all stories. This is a book to get lost in. It’s a great addition to modern literature and an impressive debut from Obreht, born in Belgrade in 1985. Reading this was a rare pleasure and I look forward to her next book!
Cinnamon ‘s Review
1984 by George Orwell
Wow! This is one of those eye-opening, life changing, amazing books that one comes across only a handful of times in one’s life. The book offers truth so clearly and so plainly that you can’t ignore it. The message is like a concentrated beam of light shone in your eyes during a migraine…magnified, brilliant, and almost too painful to bear. It’s scary to see the ways that our current culture mirrors 1984…the language we use to text-message, the CCTV’s in London, the torture of prisoners of war…This is one of the classics of literature that you cannot afford to skip. Be warned, Big Brother is watching!
Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
I am Chris’ astonishment.
Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club is perhaps the best debut novel I’ve ever read. In it lies the story of Tyler Durden. Durden starts the first underground fight club. It is a place where men can go to fight; not for money, anger, or honor but rather only to fight, to see how far they can push themselves and each other. Fight clubs spring up around town as people violate the first rule of fight club.
“The first rule of fight club is, you don’t talk about fight club.”
They are everyone, clerks, waiters, and station attendants. They are accountants, lawyers, and insurance agents. Fight Clubs begin to form across the country as the second rule of fight club is broken.
“The second rule of fight club is, you don’t talk about fight club.”
But what happens when these men no longer get the same rush from fights, where else is there to go?
Oh, and if this is your first night; you have to fight.
Lullaby by Chuck Palahnuik
Our narrator, Mr. Streator is on the hunt for a killer lullaby; that is, a lullaby that kills whomever hears it. But Mr. Streator is not alone. There are three other people who know about this particular lullaby, and the ancient grimoire it comes from, and they all have their own agenda for it; Helen wants the tome for monetary gain, Mona believes the spiritual power found inside can make the world a better place, Oyster wants to use the words inside to take down corporate America, and Mr. Streator just wants to burn the book up. But first, they have to track it down.
Lullaby is fast paced, and the characters are vivid and not entirely likeable. You get to know them as Mr. Streator relates them to you; his observations are your guides. I really enjoyed the details Palahnuik makes important to Mr. Streator, like what the characters are wearing, and the specific colors of Helen’s various suits; it’s not just red, it’s “the red of a strawberry mouse”. They may seem like unnecessary details, but considering his situation they keep him grounded. Palahnuik is known for his self-destructive characters and dark, minimalistic style of writing. If you like Bret Easton Ellis, I highly recommend giving any of Palahnuik’s books a read.
State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
Once again, I binged on a book. I took this one with me on a family trip to the Lied Lodge in Nebraska City. In between the pool and dinner in the dining room, I found time to take a seat in the mission oak rocker by the giant stone fireplace and disappear into this novel. I liked Patchett’s book, Bel Canto, which I read when it was selected as the One Book One Lincoln choice in 2003. This one is even better and I finished it within two or three days.
Dr. Marina Singh, a pharmaceutical researcher, is tasked with retrieving the remains and effects of a colleague, who died mysteriously while on a project in the Amazon. While she’s there, she has also been instructed to make contact with the elusive Dr. Annick Swenson, another researcher who has been working to unlock the reproductive miracles belonging to a tribe in which women continue to bear children into their 60’s. I was drawn in by the initial mystery and kept by the gorgeous, lyrical writing. After finishing the novel, I was dying to talk to someone else who had read it. This would be a great book club selection and would inspire discussions about whether we are driven to discover the unknown or compelled to fear it; the benefits and detractions of science; the points at which the spiritual and scientific intersect; what motivates us as people – and the relativity of relevance. Brilliant.
The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl
This novel will take you to Civil War era Boston, where Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes and James Russell Lowell are taking on the controversial task of producing the first American translation of Dante’s Inferno. Soon, people are found murdered in ways that exactly mimic the tortures of hell represented in Inferno and the academics put their minds together in attempt to solve the mystery of what’s happening in their world. It’s a great period novel that reminds me of Caleb Carr’s The Alienist (another great read) but this has more literary interest. Pearl is a Dante scholar. However, if you like a good thriller and aren’t squeamish, you’ll enjoy The Dante Club whether or not you’ve already read Inferno. It’s a well-crafted page-turner that’s genuinely spooky in spots! Pearl’s second novel, The Poe’s Shadow , is on the shelf in my office and I’m looking forward to reading it soon. Cinnamon’s Review
The Club Dumas by Arturo Perez-Reverte
The book that inspired the movie, The Ninth Gate, Perez-Reverte takes you into a thrilling suspense filled with murder and deceit. The Club Dumas delves into a literary whodunit based off of Dumas’ classic, The Three Musketeers but also includes the addition of the fictional book The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows, which is reported to have the ability to raise the devil. Set mostly in Europe, Corso, a sort-of book detective leads you on an masterfully designed and intelligent chase filled with twists and turns that will keep you turning page after page. You will love this book if you have a taste for a darker thriller.
The Flanders Panel, by Arturo Perez-Reverte
The world is one giant chessboard, and we be but mere pawns in the great game of life. This is what Perez-Reverte’s novel seems to imply. The Flanders Panel is one of those European art/historical fiction books that I am so fond of. Although set in Madrid, one could easily confuse the setting for Sherlock Holmes’ dark and drizzly England were it not for the occasional mention of the Prado and other Spanish cultural references. The book starts when Julia, a talented young art restorer, discovers a mystery within a painting done by the fictitious artist Van Huys. When the mystery soon becomes interwoven with her life and her loved ones start to be curiously killed off, Julia, her flamboyant antiquarian father-figure, and an eccentric chess genius begin to play a real-life game of chess in order to solve the mystery and stop the killer. Fans of The Da Vinci Code, rejoice! Infused by jazz music and plenty of gin and tonics, The Flanders Panel offers you just as good an art-history mystery read, though slightly less controversial.
The Rapture of Canaan, by Sheri Reynolds
This is a great choice for book clubs. It was published in 1996 and if you didn’t catch it when it first came out, stop waiting. The narrator, the teenaged granddaughter of the leader of The Church of Fire and Brimstone and God’s Almighty Baptizing Wind, provides a lyrical story filled with themes that are perfect for discussion with your good friends. You can talk for hours about the concepts of spiritual life, family structure, power and the status of women. It’s a book that will pull you through–and you’ll enjoy every minute. The simple task of writing this paragraph has taken me hours because I got sucked into the pleasure of reading it again.
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
This novel is set in the India of the 1960’s when the new ideas of Communism were clashing with the traditions of India’s caste system. It’s a family drama amid a changing political backdrop that fans of books like Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits are bound to enjoy. With rich lyricism infused with the spice and sounds of Indian culture, Roy expertly captures the child-like mindset of the twins, Rahel (girl) and Estha (boy). Their experiences and choices influence events like the drowning death of their cousin, Sophie Mol, and the end of their friend, Velutha. It’s beautiful and tragic…and the beauty makes the tragedy bearable. Friends who have also read this book tend to say, “Oh…it’s SO good…it’s so sad but it’s SOOOO good.” It won the Booker Prize in 1997. I loved it.
The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, translated by Lucia Graves
Simply enchanting! The story takes place in Barcelona, just after the Civil War and WWII, a time of secrets. Daniel, the 10-year-old son of a widowed bookshop owner, is taken to a mysterious place called the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, and told to choose one that has special meaning for him. He is then the keeper and protector of that book. After reading the book he has chosen, The Shadow of the Wind, he wants to know more of it’s author, Julian Carax, but someone has been systematically destroying all copies of his few remaining books. Over the next ten years Daniel discovers the story of Carax’s past, and finds eerie parallels to his own life, and finds he is being followed by a strange character with a burned face. The language in this book is beautiful. My favorite rebuttal in the book, to someone who says he finds books boring is: “Books are mirrors: you only see in them what you already have inside you.” This book has childhood friendship, first loves, betrayal, espionage, horror, mystery, and so many twists at every turn. I couldn’t put this down! A wonderful read!
The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell
This is one of the best books that I’ve read. And I’ve read a ton of books, folks. I just did the math on that: taking into consideration my average number of books read per week (different numbers for childhood and adulthood) and the average weight of a book (also different numbers for childhood and adulthood), I have read approximately 2395 lbs. of books. Which, by the way, is a more than a ton in both the US and the UK, thank you very much. Why is a ton heavier in Britain, anyway? That has never made sense to me… hey – maybe I should read The Sparrow in Gloucester, and see if it’s even better there! Though I’m not sure that that’s even possible, as the only complaint that I have about this book is that there aren’t any explosions. Aside from nothing blowing up, this is just a stunning piece of work. It’s got aliens, and mobsters, and mutilated priests, and biology, and linguistics, and food, and music, and, well, pretty much everything but bombs. If you still ask more from a book, guess what? There’s a sequel! Children of God fully lives up to the quality of The Sparrow, and carries its themes through to a thoroughly satisfying, if desperately sad, conclusion. Terrible, horrible, no good, very bad things happen to every major character in each of the books, and it is impossible to assign blame for any of them. Nothing is really anybody’s fault. I’ve never talked to anyone who’s read this and not loved it. So if you read The Sparrow and you don’t like it, or you’ve read it and you remember there being explosions, let me know, okay?
Empire Falls, by Richard Russo
Reading a book is somewhat analogous to riding a bike. If the book/bike is well-made it is SO much more satisfying. This book racks up almost 500 pages but its good writing makes for smooth travel. Miles Roby runs the Empire Grill in a run-down Maine community that has been struggling since the mill closed. The book is about relationships and finding one’s place in the world. It is poignant but often fall-out-of-your-chair funny. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, it was made into a movie with Ed Harris–whom I adore. I haven’t seen the movie yet because I’m a chicken. I don’t want to alter my impression of this book–or Ed Harris. Somebody should email me and tell me if I should go out on the limb and rent it.
Death with Interruptions by Jose Saramago
Nobel laureate Saramago’s story appears to be a fanciful – yet stinging – account of life and death in an unnamed country. At midnight of some new year, Death decides to stop taking lives. What would happen, if people were no longer allowed to die? Some live in a state of suspended life (“arrested death”?). Various industries are affected. Even religious entities realize that they have lost their persuasive power, when congregations no longer fear death and cannot even pray for resurrection/eternal afterlife. I have not read Saramago’s other works (Blindness, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis), so I’ll admit, I did not expect such acidic commentary in the first half of the novel. There is humor here, if one has a mind to read it that way. The romance of the second half, starring death (with a small ‘d’) and a bachelor cellist whose breath she has been unable to steal, is somewhat more light-hearted. Does death ever work again – and is her hiatus a blessing? Saramago’s style is entertaining. Dialogue is separated by commas and capital letters, but written in paragraph form. If you’re used to reading other “stream of consciousness” style writings, you will enjoy following this story. Death with Interruptions is the epitome of dark humor, presented with compassion (or so I like to think). I’ve heard that this work is quite different from Saramago’s early work (other reviews hint at the deconstruction of themes presented in his 80s and 90s lit) but I prefer (as a new reader) to see this work as a grandiose contemporary contemplation of death’s place in life. If you’re looking for a quick read to make you think, this may be the perfect fit!
Katie ‘s Review
The Fur Person, by May Sarton
The Fur Person can be found in either children’s literature or in adult fiction. Sarton was a novelist and poet who also happened to be an avid diarist, and this book echoes all of these genres. Both kids and adults will enjoy this book about a gentleman cat who adopts a family after living on the street and shares his reveries and his songs.
“If you wish to see Tom Jones, I’m he, This Jones victorious
Glossy and glorious, Lordly and lazy And catnip crazy,
Yes, glorious Jones Is me!”
The Coffins of Little Hope by Timothy Schaffert
Some of my friends have teased me about being biased for liking the work of one of my favorite professors so much, but the fact still stands that I am always enchanted by Schaffert’s style. To begin, The Coffins of Little Hope is the story of a missing girl and how a small town used that story to keep itself alive. The narrator is an elderly woman, the obituary writer for the local paper. It seems, perhaps, an odd choice, but really, who better to relate the problems of fighting against the tides of modernity? As is the trend for Schaffert’s work, the characters are what I feel drawn to the most. Each one is incredibly real, complete with flaws and quirks. Schaffert has a great flair for the quirky and the odd – and the people he writes are like gems, beautiful and multifaceted. Aside from heaping praise on the writing style of the novel, I would also like to say that this novel has a particularly interesting psychological question, which is left unanswered at the book’s end. I won’t reveal it, of course, but I will warn readers not to feel upset about this ending. Ultimately, a purse-string ending leaves little room for discussion. With Coffins ending as it does, I’m sure you’ll want to recommend it to a friend so you can talk about it together!
Allan ‘s Review
Naked by David Sedaris
I’ve always enjoyed Sedaris’ work, and I’m glad I recently decided to add Naked to my list. This book, as its title implies, strips naked many parts of family life. I never thought I’d laugh at the blatant fun-making of someone with a mental disorder, but as Sedaris teases about his own OCD, from his mother choosing to interpret his head jerks as nods to her requests, to his college roommate confusing his rocking back and forth in bed as a more dubious activity, I couldn’t stop laughing. Hitchhiking is prominent in this book, and as Sedaris catches rides from complete strangers, we see a cavalcade of strange folks, ranging from hilarious to hilariously terrifying. Dynamics between people are explored, always with a good amount of humor; be it Sedaris’ mother and father enjoying the predictability of the things they hate about each other or the one-sided banter between a devout(?) Christian and God. Naked is cleverly written, brutal and bitter at times, but always in a way that you can’t help but find amusing. If I haven’t got you hooked already, the last essay in this book goes furthest of all when Sedaris decides to live in a nudist community for a week. It’s mortifying, of course, but also riotously funny and surprisingly revealing (pun intended–it’s a nudist colony; I had to).
When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris
David Sedaris has done it again: He has embarrassed me in public. I picked up his new collection of short stories, When You Are Engulfed In Flames, for my trip home, and I found myself laughing uncontrollably at the gate in Omaha, at the gate in San Diego, and in my coveted aisle seats there and back again. The ear buds attached to my silent I-Pod did not make me invisible. At one point, on the flight from Denver to San Diego, I laughed so hard I began to choke. Fellow travelers seemed nervous. Was it my behavior of laughing, spitting, trying not to laugh, and eventually choking? Was it the Swine Flu scare? Either way, flight attendants seemed eager to see me go.
Sedaris returns to stories about his friends and family and his linguistic struggles while living in France. My most embarrassing laughing fit occurred when reading his story about a visit to a French hospital. And, while there is much to laugh about, Sedaris continues to tell endearing tales about pet spiders and loving, but fanatic, relationships. He kneads stories that give us just a little more insight into humanity: our obsessiveness, our acerbic responses, and our decency. When You Are Engulfed In Flames is worth picking up; however, take my advice and read it in private– I narrowly escaped one flight attendant with a taser.
Where’d Ya Go Bernadette by Maria Semple
Maria Semple wrote for the hit TV series “Mad About You” AND the hilariously funny series “Arrested Development”. I was heading into a busy holiday season and decided some humor was in order – and I found this quirky book very satisfying. Bernadette Fox is an eccentric former architect who lives in Seattle with her husband, Elgin Hunt, a top dog at Microsoft. Their precocious daughter, Bee, is enrolled in a private school, which is trying to up its game with a campaign to attract “Mercedes” parents instead of its current cadre of “Subaru” parents. Much like “Arrested Development”, this funny book delves into the absurdity of a family’s world.
When Bee claims a family trip to Antarctica as her reward for getting straight A’s, Bernadette disappears – and Bee sets out to find her mother by compiling the puzzle pieces of email correspondence from her family – and supporting characters. Highly entertaining, with plenty of humor and a few well-placed poignant moments. I gave this book to my sister when she visited at Christmas.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows
I was in the mood for something light but not fluffy – and I picked this up. It suited me perfectly. This is a novel written in letters – from author Juliet Ashton to her publisher, to her beau, to her best friend…and eventually to residents of Guernsey. Dawsey Adams, of Guernsey, has purchased a book Juliet previously owned and writes to ask if she happens to have a companion volume. This whimsical act leads Juliet into the world of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, formed during the German occupation during World War II. Captivated, Juliet proposes to her publisher that she write her next book about Guernsey and how members of the community endured the war – and how their literary connection made the hardships bearable. This book is often described as “charming” – and it is. But it isn’t inconsequential. The World War II sacrifices described in the book have the ring of authenticity and the characters, although imperfect, are the kind of people I enjoy. This book was satisfying – not haunting, mesmerizing or luminous – but satisfying , like a good meal. I enjoyed it and feel like I can recommend it to a wide range of people.
Cinnamon ‘s Review
The Stone Diaries, by Carol Shields
The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields follows the genesis and death of Daisy Goodwill-Flett. Winner of the 1995 Pulitzer Prize, Shields explores how one woman fulfills and, in quiet ways, transcends her roles of daughter, wife, widow, and mother, as she looks for connections and purpose. The novel’s use of first and third-person accounts, letters, photographs, and newspaper articles inform us powerfully and poetically about how expectations and roles can define us. I have read and taught this novel several times, each time with a new appreciation for Shields and the story she tells. I consider Stone Diaries an approachable feminist and postmodern novel that can be read layer by layer–simple in its telling, yet boundless.
The Fig Eater, by Jody Shields
Yay for period pieces and Freudian theory! This is a great plane/airport read. Set in turn of the (19th) century Vienna. Shields weaves a very gripping tale of murder, “female hysteria”, and the secrecy that surrounds the upper class Viennese. She also includes interesting traditions of Hungarian folklore, as the protagonist is Hungarian. I would imagine that anyone who has been to Vienna would enjoy this book because Shields is constantly place-name dropping, which allows the reader to visualize the city very well. Or maybe I just have a ridiculously good imagination. Either way, this book is beautifully written and quite colorful.
We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
Kevin, the teen-aged son of Eva and Franklin, has gone on a rampage at his school and killed nine people, including a cafeteria worker and a teacher. Now Eva, in a series of letters to her estranged husband, tries to sort out what has happened and why. In often painful detail and brutal honesty, she examines her life with her disturbing son, their shared history leading up to the murders and beyond, and reveals how she has felt about him all along. Eva unflinchingly questions her ability to be a good mother to Kevin as strongly as she questions his ability to be human, a devastating conundrum.
It is difficult for me to recommend a book about which I have such mixed feelings. I’m not sure I even liked We Need to Talk About Kevin, but then again, I’m not sure that this is a book you can just tepidly like or dislike. I do think Shriver’s book is an important one and I’m glad I read it, as uncomfortable as it made me. That discomfort reflects the novel’s intelligence and power, and I believe that it is supposed to make one uncomfortable. It encourages deep introspection and challenges the reader to walk in Eva’s shoes with both judgment and sympathy. This isn’t an easy read, but I will read it again…after a bit of recovery.
Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, by Dai Sijie
This is a beautiful little book set during the harsh time of China’s Cultural Revolution. Two young men are sent to a rural village for re-education. They discover another boy’s stash of banned books, meet a lovely girl and show her the magic of literature. This is a book about our practical purpose and our dreams, the confines of the body and mind, and the kinds of freedom we can choose. It is about love and yearning and the various kinds of danger. Dai Sijie directed a film adaptation of this book, which I also recommend.
Regarding the Pain of Others, by Susan Sontag
I miss Susan Sontag, and I can’t tell you how happy I am that she gave this book to the world before she left it. If you didn’t get a chance to know Sontag’s work while she was alive, now is a great time to do so and this is a great place to start. As with all of her monographs, this ‘un is slim, dense, and incredibly readable. That last is, I think, what I’ve always liked most about her work; it’s not easy, it’s not nice, but it’s surprisingly fast despite its subject matter. Reading this is like sprinting through a minefield, terrified and tired and elated by each successful step, knowing that the horror will catch up with you as soon as you catch your breath. Sontag was insanely in tune to the intricacies of human nature and culture, and her words are impossible to ignore.
The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck
This book should be mandatory reading for everyone in the United States. No joke. It is at the same time humbling and shocking. Steinbeck chronicles the journey of one family as they leave Oklahoma’s Dustbowl and head west to California in search of a better life. The book has useful intercalary chapters that illustrate what the rest of the emigrants are going through, allowing the reader to have an idea of the bigger picture during the Great Depression. This is not a happy book; I was almost unable to believe that such abominable things took place in this country; it seemed too “Third World” to be possible. But it was possible and it is a reality for many people today in all parts of the world. So, yeah… not a happy, book but an imperative one when trying to understand society and human nature, past and present.
The Wayward Bus by John Steinbeck
Dawn breaks across the Southern California homestead of Rebel Corners, illuminating the lives of a group of strangers pulled together with shared purpose: getting away from the place. As Juan Chicoy steers Sweetheart the bus through Steinbeck country, each passenger (and Alice, back at the diner) faces crises of identity in near-cosmic proportions. The Wayward Bus is often hailed as either a work of character-driven art in motion, or a tale in which nothing really happens. It’s a short work, a 24-hour story, and a satisfying introduction to a classic American author. Does the ragtag group of people (aged 18-70, of varying socioeconomic and political backgrounds) reach their destination? “‘I’ll keep my word,’ he whispered. ‘I’ll get through if I can.’ He felt the wheels slip in the mud and he grinned at the Virgin of Guadalupe.” Steinbeck handles the emotional states of each character with ease. Each of us could be an Alice, a Kit, an Ernest Horton. We may have not-so-secret crushes on Clark Gable, like Norma. If you’ve ever asked, “How did I get here? Where am I going?” or simply had to answer with, “We’ll see how it goes,” The Wayward Bus is well worth a read.
Katie ‘s Review
The Help by Kathryn Stockett
There was such a buzz about this book when it came out that I went to Indigo Bridge Books (a new bookstore in the Haymarket) and bought it. It’s set in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960’s and revolves around the lives of women – the White ladies of “society” and the Black women who serve their households as “the help”. The narration changes between characters, so we view the story from a variety of perspectives. I was drawn into this book and enjoyed it. However, it’s important to note that it does not tell the whole story of race relations in Mississippi in the 1960’s. This book glosses over a lot of violence. For instance, the sexual harassment/assault/rape that was known to happen in some households was not addressed in this novel. Roxane Gay has a great essay about this book and the subsequent film in which she talks about who is able to tell what story. Also, the Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche has an eye-opening TED talk about the danger of a single narrative. Taken together, you could have a fantastic book club.
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
Again, I’m recommending something that doesn’t necessarily have WIDE appeal – no car chases, no murder, no hot sex scenes. (You’ll have to browse my other recommendations for those books…) However, Olive Kitteridge is really great. It’s a novel of stories that gets to the beating heart of life. Sections of the book are presented from various characters’ points of view, and our early information about Olive Kitteridge herself does not lead us to like her much. The wonder of this book is the kind of tenderness we develop for Olive, despite her flaws. Strout has given us someone very real. Olive Kitteridge is not someone to idealize or idolize…but she is someone to love. Strout is a masterful storyteller and this is a deeply empathetic book. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009.
Cinnamon ‘s Review