Illustration: Jane Mount
So…sometimes life can be a numbskull. We’ve all been there, haven’t we – unexpected emergencies; personal challenges; sad news; and loss. So many things make up life’s rich pageant, and most of us carry our own “stuff”, as we make our way in the world. So far, 2014 has been…difficult. I have not been able to pay much attention to this blog, but that does not mean I have been away from reading. While the chaos of life did send me into a bit of a reading slump (do you grapple with those sometimes?), I have been plugging along lately, and have enjoyed some wonderful books. I hope to create new reviews soon, but until then I did want to share a few suggestions with you. I found these following six novels to be wonderful, and I am happy to recommend them to you.
1. The Magician’s Assistant, by Ann Patchett. This is one of Patchett’s earlier novels. I loved it – the story pulled me right in. If you have ever experienced the loss of a loved one, and been mired in the murkiness of grief, you may find this story interesting, and maybe even a bit of a balm.
From the book’s description: “Sabine– twenty years a magician’s assistant to her handsome, charming husband– is suddenly a widow. In the wake of his death, she finds he has left a final trick; a false identity and a family allegedly lost in a tragic accident but now revealed as very much alive and well. Named as heirs in his will, they enter Sabine’s life and set her on an adventure of unraveling his secrets, from sunny Los Angeles to the windswept plains of Nebraska, that will work its own sort of magic on her.”
2. The Good Lord Bird, by James McBride. I enjoyed this novel so much. It won the 2013 National Book Award; the voice, time and place McBride brings to life in his story are wonderful.
From the book’s description: “Henry Shackleford is a young slave living in the Kansas Territory in 1857, when the region is a battleground between anti- and pro-slavery forces. When John Brown, the legendary abolitionist, arrives in the area, an argument between Brown and Henry’s master quickly turns violent. Henry is forced to leave town—with Brown, who believes he’s a girl.
Over the ensuing months, Henry—whom Brown nicknames Little Onion—conceals his true identity as he struggles to stay alive. Eventually Little Onion finds himself with Brown at the historic raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859—one of the great catalysts for the Civil War.
An absorbing mixture of history and imagination, and told with McBride’s meticulous eye for detail and character, The Good Lord Bird is both a rousing adventure and a moving exploration of identity and survival.”
3. The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, by Gabrielle Zevin. This novel is utterly lovely and charming. If you sometimes just want to read a “nice” book – this is it! Plus — if you are any sort of card-carrying book lover with a heart, a novel that features: books, a bookstore, and publishing should really appeal. Zevin’s novel is like a book nerd’s most amazing dream.
From the book’s description: “Hanging over the porch of the tiny New England bookstore called Island Books is a faded sign with the motto “No Man Is an Island; Every Book Is a World.” A.J. Fikry, the irascible owner, is about to discover just what that truly means.
A.J. Fikry’s life is not at all what he expected it to be. His wife has died, his bookstore is experiencing the worst sales in its history, and now his prized possession, a rare collection of Poe poems, has been stolen. Even the books in his store have stopped holding pleasure for him. These days, A.J. can only see them as a sign of a world that is changing too rapidly.
And then a mysterious package appears at the bookstore. It’s a small package, but large in weight. It’s that unexpected arrival that gives A.J. the opportunity to make his life over, the ability to see everything anew. It doesn’t take long for the locals to notice the change overcoming him or for a determined sales rep named Amelia to see her curmudgeonly client in a new light. The wisdom of all those books again become the lifeblood of A.J.’s world and everything twists into a version of his life that he didn’t see coming.
As surprising as it is moving, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is an unforgettable tale of transformation and second chances, an irresistible affirmation of why we read and why we love.”
4. Burial Rites, by Hannah Kent. This is a fantastic debut novel, from a young Australian writer. Kent has done a great job creating an evocative story. You may very well feel this one right to your bones.
From the book’s description: “A brilliant literary debut, inspired by a true story: the final days of a young woman accused of murder in Iceland in 1829.
Set against Iceland’s stark landscape, Hannah Kent brings to vivid life the story of Agnes, who, charged with the brutal murder of her former master, is sent to an isolated farm to await execution.
Horrified at the prospect of housing a convicted murderer, the family at first avoids Agnes. Only Tóti, a priest Agnes has mysteriously chosen to be her spiritual guardian, seeks to understand her. But as Agnes’s death looms, the farmer’s wife and their daughters learn there is another side to the sensational story they’ve heard.
Riveting and rich with lyricism, BURIAL RITES evokes a dramatic existence in a distant time and place, and asks the question, how can one woman hope to endure when her life depends upon the stories told by others?
5. Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Adichie examines the ideas of race, identity and belonging. It’s edgy and it’s essential.
From the book’s description: “Ifemelu–beautiful, self-assured–left Nigeria 15 years ago, and now studies in Princeton as a Graduate Fellow. She seems to have fulfilled every immigrant’s dream: Ivy League education; success as a writer of a wildly popular political blog; money for the things she needs. But what came before is more like a nightmare: wrenching departure from family; humiliating jobs under a false name. She feels for the first time the weight of something she didn’t think about back home: race.
Obinze–handsome and kind-hearted–was Ifemelu’s teenage love; he’d hoped to join her in America, but post 9/11 America wouldn’t let him in. Obinze’s journey leads him to back alleys of illegal employment in London; to a fake marriage for the sake of a work card, and finally, to a set of handcuffs as he is exposed and deported.
Years later, when they reunite in Nigeria, neither is the same person who left home. Obinze is the kind of successful “Big Man” he’d scorned in his youth, and Ifemelu has become an “Americanah”–a different version of her former self, one with a new accent and attitude. As they revisit their shared passion–for their homeland and for each other–they must face the largest challenges of their lives.
Spanning three continents, entering the lives of a richly drawn cast of characters across numerous divides, Americanah is a riveting story of love and expectation set in today’s globalized world.
6. The Transcriptionist, by Amy Rowland. Another wonderful debut novel, from a very engaging writer. Rowland has a great way of shining a light on many absurdities of modern life.
From the book’s description: “Lena, the transcriptionist, sits alone in a room far away from the hum of the newsroom that is the heart of the Record, the New York City newspaper for which she works. For years, she has been the ever-present link for reporters calling in stories from around the world. Turning spoken words to print, Lena is the vein that connects the organs of the paper. She is loyal, she is unquestioning, yet technology is dictating that her days there are numbered.
When she reads a shocking piece in the paper about a Jane Doe mauled to death by a lion, she recognizes the woman in the picture. They had met on a bus just a few days before. Obsessed with understanding what caused the woman to deliberately climb into the lion’s den, Lena begins a campaign for truth that will destroy the Record’s complacency and shake the venerable institution to its very foundation.
An exquisite novel that asks probing questions about journalism and ethics, about the decline of the newspaper and the failure of language, it is also the story of a woman’s effort to establish her place in an increasingly alien and alienating world.”
I hope you will find some books of interest on this list. I think each of these novels will appeal to many readers, and that within these stories are characters and situations to which we can all relate. There is also much to be learned within each of these books. I always love gaining new perspectives and new knowledge while reading, and while many of these stories may have you looking within, they will also have you looking out, to the world beyond your own personal sphere. And that is never a bad thing.
If you have read something wonderful lately, I would love to hear about it. Please feel free to leave a comment, below this post.