Some of Debby’s Favorite reads from the past few years:
Here are some of my favorite reads since the turn of the century. Most are adult books but the list of young adult and picture books, at the end, is growing. This list was last updated on April 9, 2010.
Choosing my Religion (originally published as Turbulent Souls: A Catholic Son’s Return to his Jewish Family), by Stephen J. Dubner. Very, very moving and almost unbelievable story by a young man who grows up the youngest of eight children in a devout Catholic family in Central New York, only to discover when he’s in his 20s that his parents were both brought up Jewish. This is his story of recovering his past and his family. One of the best books I’ve ever read.
The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to his White Mother, by James McBride. Excellent, moving memoir of a black man who learns as a young adult that his white mother grew up as the daughter of an abusive orthodox rabbi. His chapters alternate with his mother’s story, in her own words. This is one of my new favorites, and an ideal companion to Dubner’s book.
Slow Motion, by Dani Shapiro. Amazingly gripping story of a young woman’s descent into decadence and her slow and painful crawl out of it. An only child of a couple who had both been married before, she was raised an orthodox Jew in suburban New Jersey, an adored and pampered girl who went off to college and left after a couple of years to become the mistress of her best friend’s stepfather. You get the picture – but if you can get past judging her for making such poor choices, her story is incredible, and her telling of it is riveting.
Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Compelling and provocative memoir by a Somali Muslim woman who has very good reasons for turning her back on her faith.
Finding Rosa: A Mother with Alzheimer’s, a Daughter’s Search for the Past, by Caterina Edwards. An impossible-to-put-down story about Edwards’ odyssey to learn the truth about her mother’s past, a journey she embarked on just as her mother was beginning to suffer from Alzheimer’s. Rosa grew up in Istria, parts of which now belong to Italy, Austria, and Croatia. In the course of the book, readers learn not just about Rosa’s traumatic, war-torn childhood, but the history of a country that has disappeared from the world map.
An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken. Excellent and moving memoir about losing a stillborn child.
John Adams by David McCullough. One of the best biographies I have ever read. Utterly fascinating.
The Flying Carpet of Small Miracles by Hala Jaber. A detailed, moving memoir by a British-Lebanese journalist who falls in love with a two orphaned sisters during the Iraq War. The book details Jaber’s struggles with infertility, career and life choices, values, and the idea of home.
True Compass: A Memoir, by Ted Kennedy. Intimate look at the personal and political life of a first-generation Kennedy by the youngest of the nine children. Many great tidbits designed to satisfy the appetite of Kennedy-o-philes everywhere.
Outwitting History: How one man Rescued a Million Books and Saved a Civilization, by Aaron Lansky. Great account of the birth of the National Yiddish Book Centre, including history and culture of eastern European Jewish culture.
The Beckham Experiment by Grant Wahl. Fascinating look at the forces that came into play (and collided) when David Beckham signed on to play with the LA Galaxy in 2007. Very well written and researched by a Sports Illustrated reporter.
Open, by Andre Agassi. Great autobiography (written with memoirist JR Mohringer. Contains all kinds of heretofore undisclosed info about the tennis great, including his almost-unrequited crush on Stefanie (don’t call her Steffi) Graf, his mismatched relationship with Brooke Shields, and his textbook-pushy-stage father, Mike, who should stand as a cautionary tale for all parents who decide, when their children are still in the crib, that they should be champions.
In Our Hearts We Were Giants: The Remarkable Story of the Lilliput Troupe: A Dwarf Family’s Survival of the Holocaust, by Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev. The title pretty well sums it up. This family, from Czechoslovakia, became Mengele’s pets and a favorite for his experiments. Their story is horrible but sort of hopeful, too.
Eats, Shoots and Leaves, by Lynn Truss. A defense of grammar. I loved it. Not sure it’s a book group book, but if you’re a grammar fascist, you’ve got to have it.
Truth and Beauty: A Friendship, by Ann Patchett. The author of “Bel Canto” tells about her life-changing and somewhat dysfunctional friendship with fellow author Lucy Grealy, who wrote…
The Autobiography of a Face, by Lucy Grealy. Incredibly riveting memoir by a young woman who suffered a disfiguring form of facial cancer as a child and bore the physical and psychological scars for the rest of her too-brief life.
Walking the Bible, by Bruce Feiler. Really interesting account of a young man’s tour through the places mentioned in the Old Testament.
The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures, by Ann Fadiman. One of the best books I’ve ever read, it’s about what happens when a Hmong child living in central California is diagnosed with epilepsy. In her culture, it’s considered a form of magic, something not to be tampered with. Her doctors want to cure her. Fadiman does an incredible job showing the drama and tension when the two cultures collide.
Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, by Amanda Foreman. Story about a British aristocrat in the 1700s that reads like modern fiction. I was expecting something heavy and dull, but it was quite compelling.
Candyfreak, by Steve Almond. Hilarious, entertaining, and informative memoir-cum-history about one young man’s quest to learn the fate of his favorite childhood chocolates.
The Mitford Girls: The Biography of an Extraordinary Family, by Mary S. Lovell. Terrific biography of the famed British family whose seven children included two successful writers and two Fascists, one of whom was in love with Hitler.
Chosen by God, by Joshua Hammer. A secular Jewish writer for Newsweek tries to reestablish contact with his ne’er-do-well younger brother, who has become an ultra-orthodox Jew. Another very compelling story, very well told.
The Prizewinner of Defiance, Ohio: How My Mother Raised 10 Kids on 25 Words or Less, by Terry Ryan. Wonderful memoir by the daughter of a woman who supported her family during the 1940s and 50s by winning jingle-writing contests.
A Beautiful Mind, by Sylvia Nasar. The biography on which the Academy Award-winning film was based. Very moving story, though it may be too long for a book group.
The Children of Willesden Lane, by Mona Golabek. Story of Golabek’s mother, an aspiring concert pianist whose parents managed to get her out of Vienna on one of the Kindertransport trains before World War II. She wound up in a boarding house in London with other Kindertransport passengers, who banded together to help her realize her dream. It’s really well written and quite heartwarming without being squishy.
The Real Mrs. Miniver, by Ysenda Maxtone Graham. Very compelling story by the granddaughter of the woman who wrote the famed Mrs. Miniver columns for a London newspaper. The columns were later turned into the award-winning movie, Mrs. Miniver.
Random Family, by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc. Intimate look at the life of poor young Hispanics in the South Bronx during the 1990s. It sounds dry and depressing but LeBlanc, who spent 10 years following these families around, is a terrific writer and the book reads like a novel.
A Month of Sundays: Searching for the Spirit and My Sister, by Julie Mars. Moving and excellently written memoir by a woman who decides to attend 30 houses of worship over 30 Sundays in hopes of finding the faith she lost while nursing her dying sister. Published by a very small press, Greycore, so it might be hard to find. Came out in 2005.
His Brother’s Keeper, by Jonathan Weiner. Excellent book about a banker brother trying to lead the charge to find a cure for the Lou Gehrig’s disease that’s killing his beloved brother. Weiner does terrific research about the science and the personalities involved, and the story has extra heft because his own mother is dying of a similar disease while he’s writing his book. Was nominated, deservedly, for all kinds of awards.
My So-Called Normal Life, by Erin Zammett. Short readable memoir by a Glamour magazine editor who is diagnosed in her early 20s with a deadly form of leukemia. While she’s recovering, her older sister is diagnosed with another form of cancer, but the book is saved from being a woe-is-me memoir because of Zammett’s sense of humor and all the nifty contacts she has as a result of her high-powered job. Young women will probably like this more than their moms will.
Ponzi: The Man and His Legendary Scheme, by Mitchell Zuckoff. Interesting and informative biography of the man behind the term Ponzi scheme. He was a crook with flair.
Lucky, by Alice Sebold. Read this one in tandem with her novel, The Lovely Bones. It’s her account of being raped (at age 18, when she was a virgin, on her last day of her first year at Syracuse University) and her subsequent long healing process. It’s gripping and makes a good companion piece to The Lovely Bones. Apparently she started the novel and decided she had to get this one off her chest first.
The Peabody Sisters: Three Women who Ignited American Romanticism, by Megan Marshall. Excellent, thoroughly researched biography of three incredibly influential Boston-area sisters who were related to or connected to just about everybody who was anybody in 19th century Massachusetts.
Missing Sarah, by Maggie deVries: A heartbreaking story by the sister of one of the Vancouver sex-trade workers whose DNA was found on Willie Picton’s pig farm in Port Coquitlam, BC. Sarah, a mixed race child, was adopted as a youngster into the deVries family, and though they loved and accepted her, she never felt completely at home in their world. Maggie interviewed Sarah’s street friends and lovers to reconstruct her life and try to understand how she lived and why she did what she did. Maggie also offers interesting ideas on how to reform the sex trade. You might not agree with her, but the story is compelling and worth reading.
The Modern Jewish Girl’s Guide to Guilt, edited by Ruth Andrew Ellenson. Collection of essays by mostly contemporary writers – Susan Shapiro, Lori Gottlieb, Ayelet Waldman, Binnie Kirshenbaum – about everything from the expected (mother guilt) to the surprising (Shapiro emerges as extremely unpleasant as she writes about how she has opted to say no to just about everything and everyone, in an effort to preserve time to herself – but her new approach to life still makes a lot of sense.)
Philip and Elizabeth: Portrait of a Royal Marriage, by Gyles Brandreth. Good read tracing each partner in the marriage from childhood through today. He’s very pro-royal so don’t expect him to buy into the story that Philip is a cheating cad.
Edge Seasons, by Beth Powning. Beautifully written memoir about the last year before the teenage son leaves home for University. Not good if you’re looking for fast-paced action.
Why I’m Still Married: Women Write Their Hearts out on Love, Sex, and Who Does the Dishes, edited by Karen Propp and Jean Trounstine. Great essays by a variety of writers including Marge Piercey, Susan Cheever, and Bharati Mukherkjee.
What Remains, by Carole Radziwill. Heartbreaking and engrossing memoir by the widow of Anthony Radziwill, whose mother, Lee, was Jackie Onassis’s younger sister. In a three-week period in the summer of 1999, she suffered inexplicable losses with the death of her husband, her best friend, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, and her husband’s cousin and best friend, John F. Kennedy Jr. This is her tribute to them, and it reads as if she wrote it to make sure that there would be a record of their friendship.
Don’t Let’s go to the Dogs Tonight, by Alexandra Fuller. Must-read memoir by a white woman growing up in war-torn Africa in the 1960s and 70s.
A Strong West Wind, by Gail Caldwell. Excellent memoir about coming of age in Texas in the 1960s and 70s – not quite so exotic as Fuller’s story, but worth reading nonetheless.
The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion. Excellent memoir on love, loss, marriage, and grief, written shortly after the death of her beloved husband.
I Was a Child of Holocaust Survivors, by Bernice Eisenstein. One-of-a-kind look at the Holocaust, by the child of survivors who settled in Toronto in the late 1940s. It’s irreverent, blackly comic, and very insightful. Eisenstein is an artist, and the book features many of her excellent drawings and paintings, some of which are rendered in comic-book style, complete with text-balloons.
Leaving the Saints: How I Lost the Mormons and Found my Faith, by Martha Beck. Compelling and often darkly funny memoir by a woman who grew up in highly revered but also highly dysfunctional Mormon family. A very interesting look at Mormonism – but one which, not surprisingly, incensed Mormon muckety-mucks.
Oh the Glory of it All, by Sean Wilsey. Gripping though somewhat flabby memoir by a young man who was truly the victim of a horrible upbringing. His mother is a psycho narcissist and his father was a weak-willed gazillionaire businessman. When they divorced, when Sean was 10, his father hooked up with his mother’s ex-best friend, who truly makes Disney’s Wicked Stepmother look like a cartoon character. Sean was caught in the middle, but mostly overlooked as his parents and stepmother pursued their own vain interests. But while Wilsey is a bit self-indulgent (the book could easily have been 100 pages shorter) he’s neither whiney nor filled with self-pity, and his memoir is often quite funny.
James Tiptree Jr: The Double Life of Alice B. Shelton, by Julie Phillips: Fascinating biography of a science fiction writer who felt compelled to write under a male pseudonym and achieved great success doing so.
A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, by Ishmael Beah: Excellent memoir by a 26-year-old man from Sierra Leone who was conscripted into the government army at age 13, after rebel forces murdered his family.
Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise, by Ruth Reichl. Another excellent memoir, this one by the editor of Gourmet, about her tenure as the New York Times food critic. There’s as much in this book about human nature as there is about food, and the writing is delicious. Plus, there are terrific recipes. A keeper.
Dreams From My Father, by Barack Obama: Very well-written and interesting memoir that takes a hard look at the role of race in the US. It would be interesting even if the author hadn’t beat Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primaries.
Comfort Me With Apples, by Ruth Reichl. Another great memoir, this about her first marriage and early food critic career.
Tender at the Bone, by Ruth Reichl. Yet another great memoir. I think this is the one that moved me the most – it’s about the people who helped shape her love and passion for all things food, and it’s also the most revealing about her relationship with her mother, who had serious bipolar disorder but didn’t ever really get treated for it.
The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters, edited by Charlotte Mosley. Fascinating look at the sisters who were among the most interesting and influential women of the 20th century, as told in their own words, through letters they wrote to each other starting in the 1920s up until the early part of this century.
The Goldfish Went on Vacation, by Patty Dann. Eloquent, moving memoir about becoming a widow with a three-year-old son, by the author of the novel Mermaids, the inspiration for the 1990 movie starring Cher, Winona Ryder, and Christina Ricci.
The Church of 80 Percent Sincerity, by David Roche. Slender, quick read that’s both pithy and profound, all about accepting yourself, by a man who grew up disfigured and knows what a challenge self-acceptance can be.
Foreskin’s Lament, by Shalom Auslander. Often blisteringly funny memoir of a very lapsed Chasidic Jew. Full of unresolved anger and ambivalence, which makes it as unsettling as it is entertaining. Can be offensive and whiney, so it’s definitely not for everyone.
Eat, Pray, Love, by Elizabeth Gilbert. She deserves the big sales – this is a wonderful book – an inspiring and engrossing personal journey made universal.
A Broom of One’s Own, by Nancy Peacock. Former cleaning lady Peacock, an acclaimed novelist, offers an honest and refreshing look at what life is like for most writers, few of whom can expect to crack the best-seller lists or make it onto Oprah’s Book Club. She also offers an insider’s look at house-cleaning that may lead readers to either start cleaning their own houses or, at the very least, be more careful about the messes they leave for their own cleaners.
Into the Wild, by Jon Krakauer. Terrific nonfiction account of a rebellious, idealistic young man who ventures arrogantly and naively away from family and civilization and dies in an abandoned bus in Alaska. Provocative and engrossing.
The Woman who Can’t Forget: The Extraordinary Story of Living With the Most Remarkable Memory Known to Science, by Jill Price and Bart Davis. Very, very interesting story of a woman with an amazing memory. It’s not a brilliantly written book but it certainly provides a whole new perspective about memory – and why sometimes it’s actually a gift to forget.
Curiosity by Joan Thomas. One of the best books I have ever read. Based on the true story of Mary Anning, a poor, uneducated girl from a poor uneducated family in Lyme Regis, England. In 1811 she unearthed the first skeleton to be called a dinosaur. She inspired the tongue twister, “She sells seashells by the seashore.” She was a superior fossil hunter, but because of her gender and social status she received neither the credit nor the respect she deserved. Thomas does a wonderful job crafting an unforgettable story from the facts.
Song Yet Sung by James McBride. Terrific novel about slavery, freedom and visions. An indictment of modern black life and a touch of messianic future-telling. The ideal novel to usher in the Obama era. (It was published in 2008.)
Galore by Michael Crummey. Sweeping saga about two founding Newfoundland families. Brilliant and unforgettable. Best book I’ve read about The Rock. (Also the only one, but it probably is the best one out there.)
Last Night in Twisted River by John Irving. Another sweeping saga, this one spanning 50 years in the lives of three men on the lam: a father, son, and their wacky-but-loving protector.
A Change in Altitude by Anita Shreve. Engrossing story of a newlywed couple coping with marriage and a total change in scenery when they move from Boston to Kenya in the late 1970s.
Kanata by Don Gillmor. Terrific novel about the history of Canada, as seen, mostly, through the eyes of a Zelig-like Metis history teacher from southern Alberta.
The Ship Captain’s Wife by Beth Powning. Love story, action adventure, and personal growth set in the 1800s as the idealistic wife of a Canadian ship captain travels the high seas with her husband and young daughter and comes to grips with reality. Great read.
Unfinished Desires by Gail Godwin. Great and complex novel about a miserable nun and the students and classmates she touched. Spans more than 70 years, beginning in the early 1930s.
The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff. Great novel about plural marriage in the Mormon church. Chapters alternate between the present and the founding of the Church in the 19th century.
People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks. Excellent novel about the history of the Sarajevo Haggadah. Great history and mystery.
The Colour of Lightning by Paulette Jiles. Another great novel, set in the 19th century, about life on the wild frontier and Indian kidnapping in the western territories.
Brooklyn by Colm Toibin. Beautiful and engrossing novel about a young Irish woman adjusting to her new home in New York City in the 1950s.
Map of the Invisible World by Tash Aw. Coming-of-age story set in 1960s Indonesia, focusing on an orphan boy searching for his adoptive white dad with the help of a white activist woman with ulterior motives. Political mayhem is everywhere.
The Angel’s Game by Carlos Szafon. Great page-turner about a writer who makes a deal with the devil.
This is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper. Hysterically funny, clever novel about a family reliving every awful, dysfunctional relationship when they’re forced to sit shiva for their atheist dad.
Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro. More excellent short stories by the goddess of short-story writing.
The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe. Page-turner about Salem witches and modern academe.
Remedies by Kate Ledger. Very good debut novel — good pacing and story — about a 20+-year marriage between two Type-A personalities trying not to deal with the long-ago death of their first baby. As so often happens when you try to pretend something didn’t happen, there are repercussions, in this case the dissolution of a relationship.
Palace Council by Stephen L. Carter. Excellent political conspiracy thriller spanning the turbulent postwar period between 1952 and 1974. Lots of back room politics and romance.
American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld. More politics, this time about the wife of a former ne’er-do-well son of a wealthy family who becomes president of the US. Very clearly modeled on Laura and George Bush. Engrossing read.
Run by Ann Patchett. And yet more politics and the meaning of family, this time about a family modeled after the Kennedys, but instead of having nine children, they have three: two adopted black sons and one natural born white one. The story gets going when they take in a newly orphaned black girl.
Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O’Nan. Powerful little slice-of-life look at a chain restaurant in its last night of operation before corporate headquarters shuts it down.
The Whiskey Rebels by David Liss. Excellent historical novel about greed, corruption, and vengeance in post-Revolutionary War America. Brilliant plot and writing.
Me and Orson Welles, by Robert Kaplow. Very well written and entertaining novel about a high school student who stumbles into a part in an Orson Welles play on Broadway.
Mr. Golightly’s Holiday, by Salley Vickers. Intriguing and multi-layered story about a mysterious bachelor who takes up residence in a small English town.
Miss Julia Speaks Her Mind, by Ann B. Ross. Light read about an eccentric southern woman and her makeshift family.
My Sister’s Keeper, by Jodi Picoult. Gripping drama about the impact of one child’s fatal illness on an entire family. Great book for a book club.
The Music Lesson, by Katharine Weber. Very good story about a lonely woman who finds herself stuck in the cottage in the Irish countryside with a stolen painting, only to discover that her new Irish boyfriend isn’t such an innocent after all.
A Hole in Texas, by Herman Wouk. Light and lively novel about particle physics, lost loves, and what happens when Hollywood and politics collide.
The Rule of Four, by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason. Page turner similar to The Da Vinci Code but with more depth and lovelier writing. Probably not book club fare, but a more challenging-than-usual beach book.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, by Mark Haddon. Unforgettable story told from the point of view of a 15-year-old boy who is either autistic or has Asperger’s syndrome.
The Birth of Venus, by Sarah Dunant. Excellent story told from the point of view of a 16th-century Florentine girl who dreams of becoming a painter and winds up having all sorts of interesting and not always pleasant experiences along the way.
Awake, by Elizabeth Graver. Unusually sad story about an artist whose life is turned upside down, literally, when her younger son is diagnosed with a genetic condition that renders exposure to sunlight deadly. There were times when I wanted to throttle the main character – she has a tendency to be very self-absorbed – but there were other times when I was very moved by the story. Plus, the writing is beautiful. It’s the kind of story that will inspire passionate feelings either for or against, so I think it’s a good one for a book group.
The Singing Fire, by Lillian Nattel. Very, very well-written book that traces the lives of two Jewish women from Eastern Europe who settle in London in the late 1800s.
The Tiger Claw, by Shauna Singh Baldwin. Another excellent read with an unusual twist: it’s a novel based on a real person, a Sufi Muslim woman who served as a British-trained spy for the French resistance during World War II.
Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides. Hard-to-put down (if slightly long-winded) story narrated by a hermaphrodite whose parents tried, unsuccessfully, to raise him as a girl. In the hands of a lesser writer, it could have been dreadful, but Eugenides treats his subject beautifully – and it’s got some wonderful humor, too.
The Hatbox Letters, by Beth Powning. Beautifully written novel about a widow slowly moving past her grief.
Simple Truth, by Jodi Picoult. What happens when bad things happen to Amish people? A page-turner/mystery/romance/legal thriller.
The Ladies Auxiliary, by Tova Mirvis. Great read that looks at what happens when “an outsider” moves into a somewhat judgmental and narrow Orthodox Jewish community in Memphis, Tenn. The thing is, you can substitute any group and any community – the same idiosyncrasies will arise.
Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague, by Geraldine Brooks. One of the best books I’ve ever read, it’s about a village in England whose residents voluntarily quarantined themselves and their village during the plague. It’s an incredible book.
The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver. Excellent read about a missionary family in the Congo in the 1950s and 60s.
The Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold. Amazingly convincing novel narrated by a 14-year-old rape and murder victim looking down from heaven. You’d think it would be heartbreaking and impossible to read, and while it is heartbreaking in parts, it’s also strangely uplifting.
The Sunday Wife, by Cassandra King. Sometimes a bit overwrought but otherwise compelling story about a woman in a lousy marriage who finally figures out what she wants to do with her life.
The Skating Pond, by Deborah Joy Corey. Beautifully written coming-of-age novel set in rural Maine about a girl whose family abandons her for various reasons, leaving her to make her own confused and often mistake-laden way through the world.
Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett. Unforgettable story based on a real-life event. A group of ragtag guerillas in a South American country (think Peru) take hostages at a fancy party at the home of the Vice President. The hostage-taking drags on for months and the captors and captives develop very interesting relationships. Among the characters: the world’s most famous opera diva, and Japan’s most wealthy and successful businessman.
Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith, by Gina Nahai. Another impossible-to-put-down look at a completely different world, this one follows an Iranian Jewish family from Tehran in the 1930s to Los Angeles in the 1970s, after the downfall of the Shah (a man who makes Sadaam Hussein look normal, by the way). Apparently this is written in the “mystical realism” or “magical realism” style a la Isabelle Allende. Whatever, it was a wonderful book and transported me to another time and place.
The Red Tent, by Anita Diamant. Set in Biblical times, it’s the story of the daughter of Jacob the Patriarch, who was the sister of Joseph. It’s another one that transports you to another time and place, another incredible read.
Unravelling, by Elizabeth Graver. Beautifully written story of a reclusive woman in late 1800s New England, coming to grips with her life.
Vinegar Hill, by Manette Ansay: Gripping story about a young woman who moves herself and her two children to the Midwest to live with her unpleasant in-laws. An Oprah book club pick.
A Box Full of Matches, by Nicholson Baker. Oddly compelling, often hysterically funny, wry and offbeat look at life through the eyes of an eccentric married father of two who wakes up before dawn every morning to light a fire and ruminate.
Everything is Illuminated, by Jonathan Safran Foer. A young American travels to Eastern Europe 50 years after World War II to try and find the woman who may or may not have saved his grandfather from the Nazis. One of the funniest and most bizarre books I’ve ever read.
The Plot Against America, by Philip Roth. Excellent novel set in a Jewish community in Newark, NJ., during a World War II where Roosevelt makes an isolationist deal with Hitler to stay out of the war. It manages to be frightening, funny, and believable, all at the same time.
What Comes After Crazy, by Sandi Kahn Shelton. Great read about a woman caught between her crazy mother, her troubled 10-year-old daughter, and her ex-husband who ran off to become a shaman in New Mexico after having an affair with their other daughter’s preschool teacher. It’s chick-lit at its best: funny, familiar, but with depth.
Five Quarters of the Orange, by Joanne Harris. Excellent novel set in World War II-era France, it tells the story of how a fatherless family is affected by the occupation.
A Conspiracy of Paper, by David Liss. Inventive, engrossing novel set in 1700s Britain, it’s about a Jewish ex-boxer who gets caught up in a stock-fraud scandal! Great story – interesting and educational.
Our Lady of the Lost and Found, by Diane Schoemperlen. Neat take on a religious idea, Schoemperlen’s character gets a visit – a prolonged one – from the Virgin Mary, who proves to be a most pleasant house guest. Neat feature – Schoemperlen has dug up a mass of Mary stories, which she retells in the second half of the book.
The Boy Who Loved Anne Frank, by Ellen Feldman. Absolutely terrific book. Feldman has come up with a premise that would fell a lesser writer. She takes the real character of Peter Van Pels, who hid in the attic with Anne Frank, and turns him into a fictional character who has survived World War II, come to America, gotten a job, and married, and is trying to forget his past. As most people know, you can’t hide from your past, and Feldman’s depiction of Peter’s efforts is unforgettable.
Beyond the Pale, by Elana Dykewomon. Try to get beyond the absolutely ridiculous made-up name by the writer (apparently she’s been writing under this name for 30-some years) and get to the story about eastern European Jews (the main characters are lesbians, but everyone else is pretty much what you’d expect to find in your run-of-the-mill shtetl) who leave their homes in Kishinev, near Odessa, and settle on the Lower East Side of New York in the early 1900s. The characters are so lively, and the settings, both in Kishinev and New York, so vibrant that you’d swear Elana lived in both places in the 1800s and early 1900s. Her research is excellent, and she knows how to weave a story.
Making it up as I Go Along, by Maria T. Lennon. Chick lit with suspense: The main character, Saffron Roch, is a war correspondent most recently in Sierra Leone, who returns home to California to have a baby by her doctor boyfriend who has remained behind in Africa. The contrast between her life there and her very Southern California friends is sometimes too much for her to cope with – and gives her story an odd sense of balance. It’s a light and easy read, and if nothing else you’ll find yourself feeling extremely superior to Saffy – for a reporter, she has a hard time reading the people in her life.
A Perfect Pledge, by Rabindranath Maharaj. Excellent book about life in rural Trinidad in the 1950s, as seen mostly through the eyes of a poor but extremely proud and stubborn cane farmer struggling to support his family and raise his children according to his exacting and sometimes unrealistic standards.
An Audience of Chairs, by Joan Clark. Very moving story about a woman struggling to overcome her bipolar disorder and reclaim the family she lost as a result. Surprisingly uplifting.
Saving Fish from Drowning, by Amy Tan. A real romp of an adventure story/cultural commentary on what happens to a bunch of spoiled, wealthy tourists from California when their travel plans go awry in Myanmar (Burma). Funny and thought-provoking
The Interruption of Everything, by Terry McMillan. Breezy, entertaining read about a woman’s mid-life crisis. Good escape reading.
Looking for Peyton Place, by Barbara Delinsky. More escapist reading with a bit of drama thrown in, about a New Hampshire woman who returns to the town that rejected her and winds up leading the fight against the wealthy mill owners she is convinced are poisoning the locals. Not nearly as heavy as it sounds.
A Thread of Grace, by Mary Doria Russell. Excellent account of Italian resistance movement to save Jews during World War II. Definitely worth reading.
The Birth House, by Ami McKay. Captivating story set in a small Nova Scotia community in the 1920s, it follows a young woman who becomes a midwife, and her struggle against a big city doctor who tries to convince the townspeople that hospital births are safer than home births. Very interesting, with much that is relevant today.
Love and Other Impossible Pursuits, by Ayelet Waldman. Very well-written novel about a selfish young wife dealing with her anger, grief, and insufferable five-year-old stepson. She’s not likeable, but if you can get past her, the story is quite gripping.
Suite Francaise, by Irene Nemirovsky. Intimate, gripping look at two aspects of France during the Nazi occupation by a Jewish woman who started her novel during the occupation and died in a concentration camp before she could finish. Even so, this reads like a complete work, although in her mind, it was only two-thirds finished.
Absurdistan, by Gary Shteyngart. Howlingly funny satirical novel set in the fictional former Soviet republic of Absurdistan. If you don’t have a wacky, dark and scatological sense of humor, not to mention a fascination with sexual body parts, you probably won’t appreciate it. Even if you do, you may find yourself wondering why an editor didn’t cut a hundred pages or so. Still, there are parts that are so funny you probably won’t be able to see the page, you’ll be crying so hard from laughing.
Abide With Me, by Elizabeth Strout. Stunning novel set in small-town rural Maine in the late 1950s that deals with the nature of grief and what happens when people allow their pettiness and self-absorbed natures to overwhelm their compassion.
Water for Elephants, by Sarah Gruen. Excellent story about life in a Depression-era traveling circus, told through the eyes of a former circus veterinarian living in a nursing home.
Blue Water, by Manette Ansay. Beautiful and resonant story about a mother torn in her grief over the death of her six-year-old son, killed in a car accident. A childhood friend was driving the car that killed the boy, and the mother is filled with rage which she comes to realize is as damaging as the accident itself.
The World to Come, by Dara Horn. Impressive look at a Jewish family going back two generations to the early days of communism and waning days of pogroms, when Marc Chagall was just developing a reputation and Yiddish writers were hard at work. The story is kicked off when a 30-year-old divorced man steals a minor Chagall painting from a museum.
Rise and Shine, by Anna Quindlen. Entertaining and fast-paced look at behind-the-scenes in the life of America’s best-known female morning news show host (think Katie Couric in her Today Show era) as her life spirals out of control.
A Spot of Bother, by Marc Haddon. Very funny account of a middle-aged British husband, father and grandfather dealing with too many crises: his wife is having an affair, his son is gay, his daughter is about to marry a social boor and he has a peculiar skin condition his doctor assures him is eczema but which he is convinced is cancer.
Intuition, by Allegra Goodman. Excellent novel set in the world of Boston’s high-powered scientific research community. Goodman nails every personality involved while telling a gripping tale of what happens when one post-doc accuses another of fraud.
The Emperor’s Children, by Claire Messud. Intricately woven tale of manners about a bunch of mostly charmed New Yorkers, several of whom are trying to coast through life on their reputations without attempting to actually do anything. When a couple of characters appear on the scene to expose the truth the story really gets rolling.
One Good Turn, by Kate Atkinson. Very funny and complex mystery tale with some great characters.
Everyman, by Philip Roth. Slender novella about an aging man coping with his mortality (read: ill health). Entertaining, gripping, and it offers insight to anyone dealing with an elderly loved one whose health is failing.
The Whistling Season, by Ivan Doig. Beautifully written novel about life in a rural Montana community in 1909 and 1910, and what happens when a new teacher comes to the one-room schoolhouse.
19 Minutes, by Jodi Picoult. Great, fast-paced story that starts with a high school shooting in a sleepy New Hampshire town. Picoult introduces a huge cast of characters – the cool kids at school, the alpha females, the sweet but bullied boy whose reaction to years of being picked on and excluded culminates in 19 murderous minutes. She gets you to think about the profound effects our actions have on one another – and she manages to do it while being entertaining, not preachy.
Black and White, by Dani Shapiro. Excellent novel about trying to find a balance between motherhood and art, as told from the point of view of Clara, whose mother is a famous artiste/photographer who made a name for herself photographing Clara in the nude from age three to 14. Clara is now 32, and still struggling to reclaim her own identity. Where do you draw the line between your needs as an artiste and your child’s right to her own life? Shapiro does a fantastic job exploring all sides of those issues.
Acceptance, by Susan Coll. Terrific look at the college application process, as told through the eyes of three neurotic suburban Washington high school seniors and their equally neurotic parents. Satire at its best.
Away, by Amy Bloom. Complex and engrossing page-turner about an immigrant’s reverse journey to find her missing daughter in 1920s America and Russia.
An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England, by Brock Clarke. If Holden Caulfield was arrested for setting fire to writers’ homes in New England, this is the story he’d have told. Very funny tale about the destructive power of family secrets and, also, the destructive power of fire.
Mudbound, by Hilary Jordan: Unforgettable characters take turns narrating this vivid story of life on an isolated farm in the Mississippi Delta where good black folk co-exist uncomfortably with a dysfunctional extended family. It doesn’t help that the closest community is populated by bullies and murderous racists.
The Third Angel, by Alice Hoffman. A page-turner about relationships and love and family, spanning nearly five centuries.
Harbor, by Lorraine Adams. Insightful look at the lives of young Algerian men immigrants living in the US in the late 1990s. Are they terrorists or criminals or decent young men looking for a new start? Adams doesn’t offer easy or immediate answers, just a compelling, well-researched read.
Young Adult and Picture Books
Bagels From Benny, by Aubrey Davis. Really, really funny and absolutely wonderful picture book about a little boy trying to figure out how to thank God for his grandpa’s bagels.
Firegirl by Tony Abbott. Incredibly moving middle grade novel about a seventh grade boy’s friendship with his classmate, a burn victim. Great voice. Stunningly powerful ending.
When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead. Newberry-award winning novel about a girl coming of age in New York City in 1979. She’s obsessed with the Madeline L’engle novel, A Wrinkle in Time.
Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney. Well-deserved best-seller. Hysterically funny coming-of-age graphic novel about a middle school student.
Confessions of a Closet Catholic by Sarah Darer Littman. Funny coming-of-age story about an 11-year-old girl with Jewish identity issues.
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, by John Boyne. One of the most best books I’ve ever read, it’s a YA that looks at the Holocaust from the point of view of the nine-year-old son of the Auschwitz commandant. Unforgettable for grownups as well as young adults.
Violet on the Runway, by Melissa Walker. Fun, light for teens about gawky girl who becomes a fashion model.
Raisel’s Riddle, by Erica Silverman. Terrific picture book, a great twist on Cinderella in a Jewish setting.