Books to read in 2014

Here’s my to-read list for 2014. It’s incomplete, always changing, and I’m sure I won’t get to all of these, not by a long shot, but it’s a convenient list when I’m choosing my next book. You may see a few of them featured on Books Can Save a Life. I’ve included titles that will be published in 2014, so you won’t find all of them on the shelves yet.

If you have enticing choices on your list, please share them in the comments!

Watch for my book giveaway in February to celebrate the second anniversary of Books Can Save a Life.

FICTION

The Snow Queen book cover

The Snow Child, by Eowyn Ivey    “If All of Rochester Read the Same Book,” 2014

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

Someone, by Alice McDermott

Carthage, by Joyce Carol Oates

Arctic Summer, by Damon Galgut

The Unknowns, by Gabriel Roth

The Circle, by David Eggers

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, by Haruki Murakami

The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert

Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson

How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti

The Paying Guests, by Sarah Waters

And Then We Came to the End; The Unnamed; To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, by Joshua Ferris

Orfeo, by Richard Powers

Never Go Back, by Lee Child

The Language of Flowers, by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

The Snow Queen, by Michael Cunningham

The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell

The Interestings, by Meg Wolitzer

The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton

Lila, by Marilynne Robinson

By Blood, Ellen Ullman

Canada, by Richard Ford

In Sunlight and in Shadow; and Winter’s Tale, by Mark Helprin

The Cuckoo’s Calling, by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling) and Untitled (2014)

The Woman Who Lost Her Soul, by Bob Shacochis

Off Course, by Michelle Huneven

Gone Girl; Dark Places, by Gillian Flynn (movies in 2014)

Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel (Best book of the 21st century, according to Elizabeth Gilbert)

****************

IN TRANSLATION

My Struggle, Books 1, 2, 3 by Karl Ove Knausgaard (Norwegian)

Treasure Hunt; The Dance of the Seagull by Andrea Camilleri (Sicilian)

Story of a New Name, by Elena Ferrante (Italian)

YOUNG ADULT

Son book cover

The Giver Quartet Series (including Son), by Lois Lowry

Divergent Series, by Veronica Roth

Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins

The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green

*************************

MEMOIR

Wave book cover

Men We Reaped, by Jessamyn Ward

Still Writing, by Dani Shapiro

This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, by Ann Patchett

Wave, by  Sonali Deraniyagala

Intensive Care: A Doctor’s Journey; and Medicine in Translation: Journeys with My Patients, by Danielle Ofri

**************

NONFICTION

Five Days at Memorial book cover

Big Data: A Revolution that Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think, by Victor Mayer-Schonberger and Kenneth Cukier

Who Owns the Future? by Jaron Lanier

The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI, by Betty Medsger

Thank You for Your Service, by David Finkel

Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital, by Sheri Fink

What Doctors Feel: How Emotions Affect the Practice of Medicine, by Danielle Ofri

Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson, by Jeff Guinn

The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, by George Packer

Margaret Fuller: A New American Life, by Megan Marshall

The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking, by Brendan I. Koerner

The Gorgeous Nothings: Emily Dickinson’s Envelope Poems

Stalking the Divine, by Kristin Ohlson

Sons of Madness: Growing Up and Older with a Mentally Ill Parent, by Susan Nathiel

Is There No Place on Earth for Me? by Susan Sheehan

Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom, by Leonard S. Marcus

If you want to be lifted up, read Kent Haruf

Benediction book coverShe looked at the two old brothers….

I want you to think about taking this girl in.

They stared at her.

You’re fooling, Harold said.

No, Maggie said. I am not.

They were dumbfounded. They looked at her, regarding her as if she might be dangerous. Then they peered into the palms of their thick callused hands spread out before them on the kitchen table and lastly they looked out the window toward the leafless and stunted elm trees.    

                                                                             Plainsong, by Kent Haruf

Yesterday I finished reading Kent Haruf’s new novel, Benediction, about an elderly hardware store owner, Dad Lewis, dying of cancer.  I realized it was three years to the day since my father passed away from cancer. More than a coincidence, probably. I imagine something unconscious was at play. But I would have read this book eventually, no matter what, because I read everything Haruf writes.

My devotion to Haruf began when I read Plainsong, which he published in 1999. One of Haruf’s critics describes Haruf’s work as “exalted.” If you want to be exalted, get a copy of  Plainsong or Eventide or Benediction and drop into the lives of the folks who live on the dry plains in the fictional town of Holt, Colorado.

Haruf writes about goodhearted people way off the beaten path trying to do the right thing. His prose is entrancing, deceptively simple, powerful. You may begin to be lulled by the humanity Haruf captures on the page, but before you get to feeling incredulous he hits you with some dark reality: bigotry, abuse, cruelty, abandonment, addiction.

I was surprised Haruf said in an interview one of the books that most influenced him as a writer was Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, a novel that underwhelmed me both times I read it. But in Haruf’s plain, spare prose I can see Hemingway’s legacy. And it reinforces my interest in how what we read speaks to us, personally. That’s going to be different for everyone.

Benediction is a beautiful book, but an especially quiet and somber one. If you want to sample a novel by Haruf, I suggest you begin with Plainsong, which has more action and a greater diversity of intriguing characters, followed by Eventide and then Benediction. All are set in Holt, in eastern Colorado. Plainsong and Eventide are companion novels that feature the same cast, while Benediction introduces a new set of characters. I suspect Haruf may continue their stories in a future novel.

In Benediction, an eighty-year-old woman, two sixty-year-old women, and an eight-year-old girl skinny-dip on a hot afternoon in a muddy water trough for cattle. Cool and refreshed, they lie down under a tree in their thin, sleeveless cotton dresses to take a nap. Somehow, Haruf makes this scene riveting. It is emblematic of his writing.

Two of my favorite characters in all of fiction are Plainsong’s rough-hewn cattle ranchers Harold and Raymond McPheron, who take in Victoria Roubideaux, a homeless, pregnant teenager. They are so sweet, and clueless to the point of hilarity. One of the funniest scenes I’ve ever read is their visit to the ob-gyn with Victoria.

As much as I enjoyed Benediction, the McPheron brothers from Plainsong and Eventide will always be in my heart.

Plainsong book coverRaymond, you’re my brother. But you’re getting flat unruly and difficult to abide. And I’ll say one thing more.

What?

This ain’t going to be no goddam Sunday school picnic.

No, it ain’t, Raymond said. But I don’t recall you ever attending Sunday school either.

Quotes from Plainsong, Kent Haruf. Vintage Books, New York: 1999.

BY KENT HARUF:

Plainsong

Eventide

Benediction

The Tie That Binds

Where You Once Belonged

Hemingway on life and death, love and war

I believe that basically you write for two people: yourself to try to make it absolutely perfect; or if not that then wonderful. Then you write for who you love whether she can read or write or not and whether she is alive or dead. Ernest Hemingway on Writing.

Ernest Hemingway on Writing book coverWhen I visit a new place, I like to read the literature associated with that place or the literature created there. So when I went to Key West last month and the home of Ernest Hemingway, I reread The Sun Also Rises, which Hemingway wrote there, followed by A Farewell to Arms. Last night I finished For Whom the Bell Tolls for the first time and went to bed feeling rather devastated.

In my last post I was dismissive of The Sun Also Rises. When I read it the first time, in high school, I didn’t understand the novel. Decades later, I again found the characters tedious, which was Hemingway’s intention, but I at least better understood the context of those alienated, war-devastated years. His writing style, a breakthrough in Hemingway’s time, was for me so stilted and self-conscious it sometimes pulled me completely out of the story, and I especially disliked his sole female character, Lady Brett Ashley.

My post about Hemingway generated a handful of interesting and insightful comments, all by women and mostly about Hemingway’s ego and sexism and macho persona. I wish my blog attracted more male readers, but I have noticed some gender segregation in the book blog world, and I can understand that. I tend to gravitate toward female authors, and when I find I’m reading only books written by women, I’ll switch to a male author. Reading Junot Diaz, for example, was a stretch for me, but I’m glad I did. I had to talk myself into reading Hemingway again, too, but I’m glad I did that as well.

I felt uncomfortable after I was dismissive of The Sun Also Rises, and I thought about that as I read Hemingway’s other novels. Because when all is said and done, I believe Hemingway is a master and, despite my personal reactions to it, I believe The Sun Also Rises is a great book. Visiting Hemingway’s home in Key West and looking at the many candid photos on every wall in every room, I sensed something of his spirit lingering. Reading The Paris Wife and Ernest Hemingway on Writing, I saw not just Hemingway the god-like, iconic writer but Hemingway the vulnerable artist.

I don’t do the close reading of a literary scholar or a book critic, though I admire those that do. On this blog, I don’t write book reviews, and I’ve been frustrated occasionally when I hear people say I do, although I understand why they wouldn’t make these distinctions. If you were to ask me to write a book synopsis or a book review, I’d have no enthusiasm for it. (And I’m a librarian.) Here, I want to share and talk about our own, highly individual reading journeys and our personal reactions to the books we read. I think if you’re an avid reader, books help to make you the person you are, and that’s going to make a difference in what you do and who you are out in the world.

(If you’re not an avid reader, maybe you love nature and have trekked across your country, or you know almost everything there is to know about the earliest jazz recordings, or you can recite from memory every baseball statistic ever recorded, or you’re devoted to helping the poor in Third World countries. You may be on some kind of personal journey of discovery that says something important about who you are and your place in the world. That journey of discovery is what I’m interested in.)

For Whom the Bell Tolls book coverHere are some of my personal reactions to Hemingway’s novels:

  • I disliked Lady Brett Ashley because she was self-centered and slept with every man who came her way (except for Jake Barnes). Then I realized the men in The Sun Also Rises were the same, yet I wasn’t as critical of them. I held the female to a different standard.
  • When I was young I accepted and enjoyed Hemingway’s fictional romances without question. I didn’t find them sexist or offensive until literary opinion told me I should, even though I came of age just after the feminist heyday. Now, while I don’t especially enjoy Hemingway’s portrayal of women, I have to say many women acted that way. I think Hemingway understood how we idealize the other in romantic love, and how we look to each other for rescue or at least a safe haven.
  • I have trouble understanding the American Robert Jordan’s  idealism and motivation for volunteering to fight in the Spanish Civil War in For Whom the Bell Tolls. But when I think about the Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan, I’m bothered that many of us are so emotionally removed from the reality of these wars and the sacrifices a small number of Americans are making. Since I’m not especially attracted to war novels, at first I didn’t take to For Whom the Bell Tolls. I didn’t want to follow Robert Jordan and the others on their mission to blow up the bridge. Of course, I became emotionally entangled in Robert’s relationship with Maria and the others. Hemingway fought and was nearly killed in World War I and reported from the front lines during the Spanish Civil War and World War II, so he understood war and he knew how to write about it. The last one hundred pages of For Whom the Bell Tolls contain some of the most beautiful, poignant and universally truthful passages I’ve ever read. With the final sentence, I do believe Hemingway achieved perfection.

BY ERNEST HEMINGWAY

A Moveable Feast

For Whom the Bell Tolls

The Old Man and the Sea

A Farewell to Arms

The Sun Also Rises

A Clean Well-Lighted Place

In Our Time

The Garden of Eden

To Have and Have Not

Men Without Women

Islands in the Stream

Death in the Afternoon

Southernmost Beach Cafe interior

This Key West cafe is the southernmost restaurant in the US, 90 miles from Cuba. I’m sure Hemingway must have enjoyed a brandy (or two or three) here.

Bestsellers Tell What Possesses Us – Telegraph Avenue

This past fall and early winter there was a perfect storm of top authors publishing new books. I wanted to read a handful of them to see what possesses some of our best creative minds and our popular culture. I wanted to break out of old habits and venture to new places I wouldn’t normally find on my own.

I didn’t get to as many books as I’d planned, but I did read:

  • Flight Behavior, by Barbara Kingsolver
  • San Miguel, by T.C. Boyle
  • This Is How You Lose Her; and a previously published book, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz
  • Telegraph Avenue, by Michael Chabon
  • Sweet Tooth, by Ian McEwan

Most difficult of all was acclimating to the world of Telegraph Avenue. I almost gave up on it. I couldn’t keep Chabon’s characters straight, I was clueless about the endless blaxploitation and 1970s cultural allusions, even though that was my coming-of-age time, and I sometimes struggled with the rich, complex (and masterful) prose. The great librarian Nancy Pearl has a Rule of 50: Stop reading after 50 pages if you don’t like the book, and if you’re over 50 you can subtract your age from 100 and stop there. So I was well within my rights to stop before 50 pages, but I kept going with Telegraph Avenue, and it was worth it.

Telegraph Avenue book coverTo me, Telegraph Avenue and Junot Diaz’s books are similar in that I entered completely unfamiliar hearts, minds, and worlds. I’m unlikely to stop by a used record store in Oakland, California any time soon, or meet the kinds of characters (and I mean that in more than one sense of the word) who might hang out there.  In Telegraph Avenue, Archy (who is black) and Nat (who is white) are best friends, vinyl record shop business partners, and musicians struggling to make a living in a neighborhood that’s seen better days.

For one reason or another – race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, changing times – the characters in Telegraph Avenue are outsiders or has-beens or both: former blaxploitation and martial arts stars, connoiseurs of soul and jazz and long-forgotten record albums, fine musicians in their own right. Many are regulars at Archy and Nat’s Brokeland Records, which reminded me of the bar in the TV show “Cheers.” I grew to like and care about these characters in large part because of their passion for music and devotion to their art. My godfather was a jazz pianist, and I dated a jazz musician. I remember how both lived and breathed jazz, in the same way Archy, Nat, and others do in Telegraph Avenue. Music shaped their lives, and when they were playing a gig, they had an aura of dignity and charisma others envied.

Yet, both my godfather and the musician I dated played the kind of jazz that was seen by many as antiquated in the 1960s and 70s when music was reinventing itself. There is the same sense of this passing away of art forms in Telegraph Avenue, and of people being rushed headlong into the future while trying to preserve what shouldn’t be lost.

If you’ve read Telegraph Avenue, what did you think? Please comment!

I’d like to give equal time to new, lesser known, and independent authors, so I plan in the coming months to read a sampling of fiction by some of these writers. If you have a book to suggest please do in the comments.

Enter my book giveaway: Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior

Been traveling for the Thanksgiving holidays and forgot to mention here at Books Can Save a Life that I’m giving away a free copy of Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior.

Flight Behavior book coverAll you need to do for a chance to win the book is check out my recent post, Now is the time to read Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, and leave a comment about where you stand on climate change, or if you think a work of fiction such as Kingsolver’s can make a difference one way or the other.

I’m extending the deadline to December 3, when I’ll put the names of all who comment in a hat and draw the lucky winner.

I read an essay the other day in which the author mused that perhaps New York City will no longer exist in a hundred years. Or it will be located in Westchester County.

What do you think?

I welcome all thoughts and opinions (as long as we’re friendly and polite!)

So, comment away, please!

Reading Junot Diaz

This Is How You Lose Her book coverYou ask yourself why you’re reading This Is How You Lose Her, the short story collection by Junot Diaz. How could you possibly relate to Yunior, the irreverent, hard-drinking Dominican-born narrator and serial cheater of the most extreme sort?

You write this post in second person point of view, as Diaz does in his short story, “A Cheater’s Guide to Love,” just to try it on for size.

You read that Yunior cheated on the love of his life with no less than 50 women over six years. And then she found out.

Diaz writes, “You claim you’re a sex addict and start attending meetings. You blame your father. You blame your mother. You blame the patriarchy. You blame Santo Domingo. You find a therapist. You cancel your Facebook. You give her the passwords to all your e-mail accounts. You start taking salsa classes like you always swore you would so that the two of you could dance together.”

Yunior’s ex-fiancee assembles all the damning evidence (emails, photos, etc.) in an album (the Doomsday Book) and sends it to Yunior with a note: For your next book.

You think: This is one funny writer.

The writing is so musical and overflowing with Spanish, maybe you can brush up on the language: blanquita, moreno, salcedeña, sucio, cuero. Then you realize some of the words are made up, and others are words you’re not likely to use any time soon.

Yunior’s suffering seems to know no bounds, as if he’s channeling all the deprivation of his poor, difficult, immigrant life  (which the other stories in this collection portray) into mourning his lost love.

Yunior becomes a professor of fiction in Boston. Having grown up in Santo Domingo and New York City, he has a hard time in New England: “White people pull up at traffic lights and scream at you with a hideous rage, like you nearly ran over their mothers….Security follows you in stores and every time you step on Harvard property you’re asked for ID.”

Yunior visits the Dominican Republic with his friend, Eric, to see Eric’s presumed love child; the child and mother live in the Nadalands, where Yunior’s father was born and where his ex-fiancee is from. Mud, shanties, no running water or electricity, raw sewage.

You remember the volunteer work your family did in Nicaragua – you’ve only seen that kind of poverty once and, after a few days, you could return to your comfortable home in America.

You know Diaz’s  fiction is partly autobiographical and you wonder which parts are true, which are made up. You find the second person point of view can be confusing: Does the “you” refer to Yunior, or to the author himself? Sometimes you think the “you” refers to you, the reader, because by now you’ve become so invested in Yunior you find yourself beginning to understand and identify with him.

There is that moment of self-reckoning when Yunior has to face what he has done. You agree with Yunior’s assessment of the half-life of love.

You think: this blurring of boundaries between author, narrator, reader – maybe that’s the point.

If you’ve read this book, please comment!

Quotes from This Is How You Lose Her, Junot Diaz, Riverhead Books, New York: 2012.

First sentences, Junot Diaz

This Is How You Lose Her book coverSelected first sentences, from short stories in This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz:

“I’m not a bad guy.”

“Nilda was my brother’s girlfriend. This is how all these stories begin.”

“You, Yunior, have a girlfriend named Alma, who has a long tender horse neck and a big Dominican ass that seems to exist in a fourth dimension beyond jeans.”

“Your girl catches you cheating. (Well, actually she’s your fiancee, but hey, in a bit it so won’t matter.”)

“Those last months.”

“Years later you would wonder if it hadn’t been for your brother would you have done it?”

As fate would have it, one day in April when I went to Joe Bean (whose website has great photos, including one by A. Hallinan) to meet my son and have a cup of incredible coffee, I was given a free book, The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz in celebration of World Book Night.

I haven’t read this Pulitzer Prize winning book yet, so I thought I would now, right along with This Is How You Lose Her.  Both books feature the narrator, Yunior, who, according to NPR reviewer Carmen Gimenez Smith, “might someday rank with Philip Roth’s Nathan Zuckerman or John Updike’s Harry Angstrom as an enduring American literary protagonist.”

While we’re getting to know this next great American literary protagonist, whose native land is the Dominican Republic, I’ll be posting from Argentina, where I’ll also be rereading Imagining Argentina, visiting a larger-than-life bookstore, and….well, we’ll see.

Quotes from This Is How You Lose Her, Junot Diaz, Riverhead Books, New York, 2012.

Books at my door

Four fall books 2012 I love it when I find new books waiting on my doorstep.

A housekeeper, a professor, a boy, a baseball game

The Professor never really seemed to care whether we figured out the right answer to a problem. He preferred our wild, desperate guesses to silence, and he was even more delighted when those guesses led to new problems that took us beyond the original one. He had a special feeling for what he called the “correct miscalculation,” for he believed that mistakes were often as revealing as the right answers. This gave us confidence even when our best efforts came to nothing.

Paulownia tree

Photo courtesy Coolmitch

The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa is a quiet story you’ll want to experience just for what it is. A story I don’t want to say a lot about, because too much talking will diminish it.

The Professor is a number theory expert with a traumatic brain injury. He remembers nothing after 1975, with one exception: in the present, his memory lasts exactly 80 minutes.

He rarely leaves his house. He wears scraps of paper pinned to his clothes to remind him of the important things: “My memory lasts only eighty minutes” and “the new housekeeper” (next to a sketch of the housekeeper’s face). He must live in the moment because that is all he has. He is a humble, self-effacing man who loves baseball and the great Japanese pitcher, Yukata Enatsu.

The housekeeper, a single mother, has come to cook the Professor’s meals, clean his small bungalow, and tend to his needs for a few hours every day. Her son has never known his father.

The Professor nicknames the housekeeper’s son “Root” because the top of his head is flat, like the square root symbol. These three lonely people become a self-made family. They find peace and refuge in the daily rituals of preparing and eating a meal, solving a math problem, listening to the radio.

When the Professor isn’t lost in his numbers or helping Root with his math homework, he likes to watch the housekeeper prepare dinner. With great fascination and single-mindedness he observes her stuffing and wrapping dumplings; he’s entirely caught up in the watching. Surprised by the undivided attention the Professor shows her, the housekeeper is given to understand she and her daily tasks are not insignificant.

They attend their first baseball game together. We see the stadium, the lights, the players, the crowds as if for the first time through the eyes of Root, the Professor, and the housekeeper.

The Professor buys Root popcorn, ice cream, and juice only from one particular girl selling food in the stands. “Because she’s the prettiest,” he says.

Another moment: “The ball cracked off the bat and sailed into the midnight blue sky, tracing a graceful parabola. It was whiter than the moon, more beautiful than the stars.”

In her spare prose, Yoko Ogawa never uses the word “love,” but that is what this story is about.

Quotes from The Housekeeper and the Professor, by Yoko Ogawa, Picador, New York, 2009.

The men and women don’t get along on The Lifeboat

Beach scene

He’s a man. Most men think they are God.

If you’re a man who ends up on Lifeboat 14 adrift in the Atlantic Ocean, you’d better play your cards right.

The women tend to fare better.

On this particular lifeboat, being a traditional male authority figure of the time (1914) will take you only so far. Whereas, if you get along with people, if you’re nurturing and supportive, if you’re a rock of strength and give people what they need, even though you’re a woman you can then manipulate them just a little to get them to do what you want…..

Charlotte Rogan’s The Lifeboat is the PERFECT book for reading groups and book clubs, especially those with both men and women, because you’re going to have great discussions about gender, the battle of the sexes, how men and women use each other…..the whole ball of wax when it comes to male/female relations.

And that’s just scratching the surface of this confounding book.

The Lifeboat is about morality – the difficult, impossible choices we make to survive, and how we justify those choices after the fact.

It’s the kind of book I want my family and friends to read so they can help me sort out who is right and who is wrong, which characters have the moral high ground and which ones don’t.

On page 16, at the end of the chapter entitled “Day One,” the narrator, Grace Winter, makes a statement I found morally repugnant. I don’t like this woman, I thought. In her place, I’d make a very different decision.

Or would I?

If you’re reading or have read The Lifeboat, what do you think it says about men and women? Are there particular incidents from the book you can’t get out of your mind? Does it leave you feeling morally confused? Please comment below. I’d love to hear from men and women!

Quote is from The Lifeboat, Charlotte Rogan, Little, Brown and Company, New York, 2012

%d bloggers like this: