An Island Treasure and award-winning poet, John also runs our Poetry Section. He takes our various staff recommendations and polishes them till they shine. Ever since he was hired in 1991, he’s been championing the works of his favorite poets (Sharon Olds, Wislawa Szymborska, Ted Kooser, Theodore Roethke, Gary Snyder) and assorted authors (Cormac McCarthy, Kate Atkinson, Ian McEwan, Ruth Ozeki, etc.). He also has led a poetry workshop on the island since 1992. Otherwise, he cooks, hikes and makes sure all of us newcomers don’t unduly mess with the bookstore’s storied traditions and its culture.
I loved Gallen’s masterfully striking debut novel, in which we meet Majella, a complex and engaging protagonist who works at a fish and chips shop in Northern Ireland. Through Majella’s eyes we follow a host of quirky, small-town regulars, and witness her ongoing efforts to manage her alcoholic mother. The story’s dark background involves the tension between Catholics and Protestants, Majella’s missing father, and the recent murder of her grandmother. Filled with humor and hard-won insights, Majella is an oddly triumphant and memorable heroine. I feel lucky to have found this gem of a book. ~ John
Author of the brilliant and prescient novel The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood here shows her exceptional gifts as a poet. Thought-provoking, nimble and accessible, these poems cover a marvelous variety of topics, including love (see “The Tin Woodwoman Gets a Massage,” page 12), aging (see “Blizzard,” page 7), and nature, closely observed (see “Cicadas,” page 22). Readers of her fiction will recognize work that deals with sexism and violence against women: read “Digging Up the Scythians,” page 42, which draws a deft analogy between ancient and contemporary cultures. Atwood leavens the collection with skillfully deployed humor: check out “The Aliens Arrive,” page 58. This collection amazed and delighted me.
McCann, who wrote the terrific novel Let the Great World Spin, has authored a brilliant and revelatory work of fiction based on two real people: Bassam, a Palestinian from Jericho, and Rami, an Israeli who lives in Jerusalem. Bringing these two men together are the deaths by sectarian violence of their daughters, ten and thirteen years old. McCann unfolds the novel in 1,000 mostly tiny "chapters," creating a kaleidoscopic yet lyrical and beautifully focused narrative, unlike anything I have ever read. An eloquent portrayal of a friendship and a universal call for peace and understanding, this is an important book!
Macfarlane is a writer of great brilliance and wonder. In this marvelous and moving book, he takes us along on descents into the worlds below our feet, including the catacombs of Paris, a storage vault for nuclear waste far below the Polar ice cap, and numerous caverns both natural and manmade. Dividing his book into three sections—“Seeing,” “Hiding,” and “Haunting”—he skillfully melds scientific and personal mysteries into these underground explorations, touching on various ways we both violate and honor the earth. These places below the surface can harbor great darkness and sometimes great horror, Macfarlane suggests, but they can also hold much beauty, awe and delight.
This incisive look into China’s oppression of Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism, illustrated through the experiences of monks and citizens in one town, really opened my eyes. A series of self-immolations by monks underlines the tragedy of this seemingly hopeless confrontation. Demick provides a concise, masterful background in history, as well as taking significant risks herself in documenting the situation from the ground level. I came away with a unique understanding of the struggle, as well as great admiration for the resistance in Tibet.
1967: Imagine a rock band—a woman and three men—forming in London under the guidance of a perceptive manager. They earn their chops playing seedy venues, and their fortunes rise to include successful albums and tours of Europe and America. Along the way, numerous encounters with famous musicians and artists include advice from the Stones’ Brian Jones and a remarkable evening with the painter Francis Bacon. This novel is a huge treat for anyone raised on 60s rock music, and, thanks to Mitchell’s great gifts for characterization and addictive storytelling, is more fun than I’ve had reading a novel in a long time!
Thinker, poet, and essayist Freeman has created an abecedarian call to action for our times. (A is for Agitate, E is for Environment, H is for Hope.) Letter by letter, chapter by chapter, he eloquently lays out ideas for getting out of our individual, self-contained worlds and interacting with others for change. (J is for Justice, O is for Optimism, R is for Rage.) Dictionary of the Undoing has inspired me to hand copies of the book to several friends. (T is for Teachers, W is for Women, Y is for You.) Pull yourself away from that screen, go outside, join with those of like mind! (Oh yes, and V is for Vote.)
Dubus, author of House of Sand and Fog, has crafted another propulsive drama marked by excellence in character-driven plot and tension that quietly builds to the story’s climax. No one lays bare the minds of his characters the way Dubus does, and this novel, revolving around an act of violence that takes place within a family, deftly alternates points of view between a father, a daughter, and a grandmother, each with their own terrible need to come to terms with the long-ago incident. A masterful work by one of the great novelists of our time
I don't ordinarily go in for longer novels, but Powers' masterful saga illuminates and dramatizes the seamless interconnection between trees and humankind in a way I find both revolutionary and tremendously satisfying. The intricate narrative tendrils follow nine characters as their lives intertwine with trees, sometimes in surprising ways, offering readers a view of the arboreal universe as a global society with a vital relation to our own. Culminating in protests involving old-growth trees in the western states, Powers' revelatory work stands as a rich panorama and a profoundly important work.
Charles Frazier's novels are worth waiting for. Ever since Cold Mountain, his phenomenal, National Book Award-winning debut of the Civil War, I have admired the masterful elegance, lyricism, and cinematic qualities of his work. Though more quiet than Cold Mountain, Varina also takes place in the Civil War era of the American South, and centers on the dark, harrowing exodus of Varina Davis - wife of Confederate president Jefferson Davis - and her family from Richmond during the war's waning months. In tandem with this narrative, Varina's post-war perspectives deepen fundamentally American themes having to do with the issue of race. This book is a gem.
Alexie once told me, “Poetry is my main pursuit as a writer. Prose pays the bills.” The author fuses his finest expressions in both modes in this singular, wide-ranging memoir, in which poems often serve as entire chapters. Lyrical, moving, hard-edged and hilarious, it explores not only his life and identity as a writer and an Indian, his odyssey from the Spokane Reservation to an urban environment, and his complicated relationship with his mother, but also the ever-shifting terrain of memory itself. Alexie is one of our most important writers, and this is a distinct achievement.
"Could this island support its own population if it had to?" Alcalá's personal inquiry into food history and production on her home island, leavened with insights on her own relationship with food over the years, makes for an informative and inspiring read. Using food as a point of reference uniquely illuminates the individuals and communities-including Japanese-American, Croatian, Filipino, and Native American-who have helped to shape the identity of Bainbridge. Her conversations with local present-day farmers, producers and providers of food suggest useful tools for the world at large.
Like a pair of welcoming arms, this warm and accessible anthology invites us to connect with each other and with the world through poems that celebrate interactions in our everyday lives. Those seeking to pull away from the electronic screens that would dominate our attention will find plentiful signposts here. Some of my favorites include "Glitter," p. 15, "Ablution," p. 24, "A Drink of Water," p. 37, "I Ask My Mother to Sing," p. 60, and "Two Arab Men," p 85. ~ John
The ancient and enduring tale of the quest to find home—what a story! Wilson’s 2018 translation offers fresh perspectives on a text I’d last read several translations ago, in college. Her thorough and engaging introduction illuminates societal contexts such as slave-owning and the role of women, as well as giving backgrounds on pivotal characters, plot lines, translation history, the author himself, and Wilson’s own philosophy regarding translation. An invaluable glossary and chapter notes help bring the story alive. As a bonus, the book serves as a touchstone for fine recent novels revolving around Greek myth and epic, including Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls and Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles and Circe. ~ John
A voracious fan of chef Anthony Bourdain's CNN series Parts Unknown, I was saddened by his passing. I turned to his groundbreaking memoir to glimpse an early self-portrait of the man and his views of kitchen culture and the world at large. In this new edition, Bourdain's hand-written marginal notes reveal even more intimate touches, by turns passionate, irreverent, and philosophical. A compelling read and a great gift for the discerning food lover.
The new novel by the author of Peace Like a River is every bit as masterful, yet possessed of its own quiet magic. Kites, for example - the crafting and flying of them - play a transcendent role. A kind of homegrown odyssey, the story follows the owner of a movie theater in a small Midwestern town, the mysteries of his past, and the myriad relationships he has with his fellow citizens and a handful of intriguing outliers. This novel is on track to becoming my favorite book of 2018.
This now-classic novel from 1999 belongs in the top ranks of modern American fiction. The work of a master craftsman in highly charged storytelling, it revolves around two characters locked in a struggle over a modest Bay Area house: an out-of-luck woman who inherited the house from her father, and a once-powerful colonel who has fled Iran with his family. Filled with suspense, the story hurtles through their intersecting lives, grappling with that quintessentially American and profoundly human question: Where is home? ~ John
Talk about the Wild West! Olmstead, a master novelist whose works play out in that period of American history, delivers a vivid, riveting account of the buffalo hunts during the 1870s, told through the story of a man and woman who oversee one such operation, with all its perils and depravities. So much goes into making this a compelling read: memorable characters, attention to gritty details, and a keen eye when it comes to bringing to life a vast and changeful landscape.
This stark yet lyrical, brilliantly written novel revolves around a racially mixed family’s odyssey from the Gulf of Mississippi to the state penitentiary at Parchman, to pick up the husband and father upon his release. Intimately viewed from the alternating perspectives of mother and son, the journey unfolds as a drama with details that the central issue of race in our country, and its effects on one extended family. Written by the author of the National Book Award-winning Salvage the Bones, this is an important book!
This absorbing novel of exploration, love and adventure is based on an Alaska expedition in the late 1800s. Beautifully written and reflecting thorough research, it alternates viewpoints between newlyweds: an army colonel on an expedition deep into the heart of a Yukon-like river valley; and the wife who waits for him, finding solace in the pursuit of photography. Both places are haunted by a shape-shifting that occurs when the border between human and animal realms blurs, and a mysterious old Indian in a top hat presides over the strong presence of native culture. This book is a winner!
Keggie Carew's father had more than his share of mysteries about him, and her compelling account of trying to fill in the blanks makes for a very satisfying, poignant, and humorous read. Tom Carew's extraordinary exploits during World War II include parachuting into France and Burma to lead resistance movements. Following years of estrangement during her father's marriage to a zealous, overprotective stepmother, Keggie's attempts to reacquaint herself with him take on complexity as he slips into dementia. In spite of all that remains unsolved, this kaleidoscopic view of a man of many parts is a triumph of biographical writing.
“Wilderness is not my leisure or recreation. It is my sanity.” ~ Terry Tempest Williams. With grace and passion, Williams brings her extraordinary gifts as a writer, naturalist and activist to these soulful, incisive and inspiring meditations. From Maine’s Acadia National Park to Cesar Chavez National Monument in California, she fuels the diversity of her subjects with an equally compelling array of viewpoints, often casting the value of these places in light of what threatens them. I feel deeply grateful to have crossed paths with this book.
Every night I read one or two poems from this, my permanent bedside companion, and I’ve given the compact anthology to numerous friends. Organized around the three themes of its title, this accessible collection is a source of comfort and delight, yet it’s filled with worthy mysteries and “aha” moments. The wonderful voices range from ancient to contemporary poets including Tu Fu, Elizabeth Bishop, Pablo Neruda, Gary Snyder, and Wislawa Szymborska. Especially insightful are the biographical notes provided by the editor. Reading this book helped me through a serious illness and I can’t recommend it highly enough.
It's been 20 years since Frazier's masterful, National Book Award-winning first novel created a literary sensation, and it remains one of my favorite all-time books. A wounded man's quest for home during the Civil War's close grows into an odyssey in the American grain, epic in scope, intimate and authentic in voice and detail. Rooted equally in human struggles and the rhythms of nature in southern hill country, this novel fuses history, myth, and story of love in a way that moves me to gratitude. Now in an anniversary edition, this is a gorgeous, lyrical and stunning work.
In this heartbreaking and harrowing collection, the reader is placed within the walls of an institution that opened in 1910, its practices becoming linked with the eugenics movement in America. The imagined presence of the Colony's former inmates and staff haunts this work. Eloquently restrained, the poems are marked by compassion for the countless women who underwent sterilizations without their knowledge. This masterfully composed volume possesses a chilling, incantatory beauty.
Watkins’ astonishing first novel delivers a gritty harbinger in light of California’s epic drought. In the deserted home of a starlet in “laureless canyon,” Luz and Ray—a former model and a former surfer and veteran of the “forever war”—create something of an Eden, along with a toddler they have liberated from a hoodlum gang. After Luz and Ray are forced into flight, stakes ratchet up as the setting shifts to a nomadic colony of renegades with a charismatic leader. There, we meet the real “main character”: an ever-advancing desert landmass, a “dune sea” having a life of its own. Watkins enthralled me with her storytelling brilliance in delineating character and landscape. ~
Alexander, a distinguished poet, lost her husband Ficre suddenly, leaving her and her two young sons devastated. With a poet’s eye for detail, her deeply moving memoir charts the ways in which aspects of daily life become permeated with his simultaneous absence and presence. Ficre’s joys and passions—for his painting, his cooking, his garden, his family, for life itself—come alive in ways that bring the reader into intimate contact with the layers of Alexander’s grief. If any redemption of such a tragedy is to be had, this is one book that eloquently points the way.
What an inspiring account! Having its origins in 1937 with a group of kids who learned how to swim in an irrigation ditch of a Maui sugar plantation, the Three Year Swim Club’s goal was nothing less than participating in the Olympics scheduled for Tokyo in 1940. What is more, these children of laborers were coached by a school teacher who barely knew how to swim himself! Global history intervened on the original plan, but I loved reading the story of how these scrappy kids persevered, matured, and went on to become champions.
What a welcoming volume of poetry Nobel Laureate Szymborska left us! Try out the poems on pages 177 (“Astonishment”), 216 (“In Praise of My Sister”), and 332 (“A Little Girl Tugs at a Tablecloth”). Usually I find single-author “collected” poetry books intimidating for their sheer bulk; this one I embrace for its gently profound, accessible and conversational tone, its lines spoken as though over a cup of tea.
Working through grief over her father’s sudden death, Macdonald plunges into the training of a goshawk, a raptor with a reputation for difficulty when it comes to handling by humans. As we get to know Mabel, her hawk, as an individual and a species member, Macdonald’s lyrical and insightful account brings us into the lore of the ancient pursuit of falconry. I found it especially thrilling to witness Macdonald’s growth and understanding amid the despairs and breakthroughs of her work with this starkly powerful bird. ~ John
Gifted with fluency in both literature and medicine, brilliant young neurosurgeon Kalanithi was uniquely poised to articulate his moving insights on what makes human life meaningful in the face of mortality—his patients’ as well as his own. Spurred by a diagnosis of stage IV lung cancer to write the book, Kalanithi beautifully charts his struggle to reconcile his many accomplishments and early plans with what lay ahead for him and his wife. As he writes, “The fact of death is unsettling. Yet there is no other way to live.” I’m deeply grateful for his witnessing. His courageous, lucid witnessing bears lessons for us all.
Atkinson has created a cinematic and lyrical companion piece to her brilliant Life After Life by focusing on one character’s career as an RAF bomber pilot during WWII, while she movingly interweaves how his life unfolds in the wake of the war. She also captures the fluidity of memory and history in human consciousness, and gives us an intimate view of how the character responds to experiences that include the mysteries of parenthood and the indignities of aging. A richly imagined and gorgeously told tale of family and love, nationhood and war, this was one of my favorite novels of 2015.
A visit to Hawai’i gains intriguing dimension with this fine book as a background. Haley makes an accessible, engrossing read out of the complex series of collisions and confluences involving native and Western cultures that resonate in the islands to this day. He possesses keen insights into the personalities, including Hawai’ian royalty as well as missionaries, capitalists and politicians. This book deepened my understanding of the huge streaks of tragedy, exploitation and injustice that mark Hawai’i’s past, and gave extra meaning to stops I made at historically significant places including Iolani Palace in Honolulu and Hulihe’e Palace in the town of Kona.
A powerful account of love and landscape, this was the most moving book I read all year.
Meet Arlo Santiago, ace dirt biker and world class video gamer, at home amid New Mexico mesas, ranch lands, and small town environs. As Arlo grapples with his mother’s untimely death, a father who is adrift, and a younger sister fighting Huntington’s disease, opportunities open up, including an intriguing offer from the U.S. Air Force at White Sands. Wesselhoeft’s (Adios, Nirvana) lyrically propulsive prose and spot-on dialogue hurtle us through Arlo’s exploits and introspections, his turmoil and triumphs, giving us an intimate, teen’s-eye view. Wesselhoeft hits another YA novel clean out of the park. Ages 12-17
Distinguishing Tobar’s remarkable book are the intricate personal chemistries between men caught for 69 grueling days under more than 2,000 feet of rock, and the gathering tide of efforts from those on the surface—including family members, mining experts, and government officials—in an inspiring international rescue. This amazing book goes a long way toward defining what makes a hero, and what people—as individuals and in groups—are really capable of when circumstances dictate extreme strategies, both for survival and for performing a seemingly impossible deliverance.
A masterfully realized story of love between two memorable and fiercely independent characters, this remarkable novel also encompasses murder, apparitions of the dead, the idiosyncrasies of therapy and grief, and the arts of watching shore birds and making films. Its authenticity partly originates from the rendering of Howard Norman country—Nova Scotia—that we’ve come to know from his other great novels. Offering much food for thought regarding the distance between life and art’s representation of life, this is Norman’s best novel yet.
In young Michael Murray, author O'Donnell has articulated one of the most beguiling and authentic voices of a child I’ve found in a book. Michael’s growing awareness of the opposite sex has become intertwined with the bewildering circumstances of an incident involving his mother. Mystified and ravenously curious on both counts, he propels the novel as he sifts through the truths and lies of his small family and town on a Scottish island. His story gripped me, building into a phenomenally powerful, suspenseful, and finally gratifying read. Bravo! ~ John
Subtle, beguiling, dreamlike, introspective—adjectives commonly employed to distinguish Murakami’s masterful novels apply to this one, in which the protagonist battles feelings of isolation after being shunned by a tight group of four other high school friends. Murakami beautifully juxtaposes his character’s inner struggles with his search for identity as defined by others. Poignant yet affirming, this work possesses a gentle dose of the surreal and a great heart.
Carol Cassella has done it again! I could not put down this taut medical mystery with bittersweet love stories at the core. When a Jane Doe hit-and-run victim, found by the side of the road on the Olympic Peninsula, is flown to a Seattle hospital after suffering a stroke in surgery, ICU physician Charlotte tries to figure out what went wrong, and why no one has come forward to claim the gravely injured woman. Her efforts are twinned with the back story, having a twist, on how the woman ended up there. The resolution, both sad and hopeful, felt just right. Bravo! ~ Victoria
Vista Chronicles is escapism at its best: good old-fashioned story telling with great characters, fun food ideas, and sizzle on the side. All of this with a serious storyline about the Danish resistance in WWII that merges beautifully with the modern romance. Just don’t let honey drip on the pages of this enjoyable read! ~ Victoria
This quietly told novel, which unfolds like an excellent memoir, follows Marie Commeford’s ordinary life, beginning in post-World War I Irish-American Brooklyn. Effortlessly slipping between realms of memory, and intimately linked with family and neighborhood, her sweetly sad and genuine voice tells a gently transcendent tale, eloquent in its depiction of how we handle life’s passages. I loved this book. ~ John
A seaside village in Haiti and a girl who loses her mother at birth provide the focus for this beautifully intricate and lyrical novel by master HaitianAmerican storyteller Danticat (The Dew Breaker, The Farming of Bones). Reading by turns as a fable of community and an incisive peeling back of social and political realities having to do with class and the legacy of colonialism, Danticat’s graceful narrative always comes to rest on abiding patterns of family and the meaning of home. The human mosaic is haunting, moving, and richly rewarding. ~
“Why this perpetual pull toward darkness?” muses one of the characters in Dubus’s aptly-titled, masterfully propulsive collection of four loosely related tales. The answer comes through the eyes of characters you end up caring about, no matter how profound their failures and disappointments. Dubus’s pitch-perfect rendering of detail and point of view manifest the beauty inherent in lives that are all but ruined. In various American milieus including the bar, the seaside resort and the internet, his characters’ ruptured dreams, infidelities and family catastrophes touch the wounded in all of us. This book is a knockout.
This novel, Kent’s “dark love letter to Iceland,” revolves around accused murderess Agnes Magnúsdóttir, who, in 1829, was the last person to be executed there. Taken to a remote farm, she lives with a family while awaiting her execution. Thoroughly researched and lyrically written, the book gives us a visceral sense of daily life, work, and society, with vivid scenes taking place in the interiors of dwellings and the beautifully stark landscape surrounding them. Kent lends the reader intimacy with each of her main characters, including the young assistant priest whose fate it is to try and provide comfort and counsel to Agnes. Haunting and strongly compelling, this is a bleak book with an immense heart.
In walking and writing on the Penine Way—a rough English equivalent of the Appalachian Trail—distinguished poet Armitage proves to be a delightful and knowledgeable companion on a revelatory trek. Hard-won but also charming and self-effacing are his observations on the vicissitudes of weather and topography, on people whom he meets or who join him along the way, and on the poetry readings he gives each night in exchange for a place to stay in towns with names like Baldersdale and Ickornshaw. Fans of walking and hiking and outdoor adventure with an English flair will be drawn into this exceedingly pleasant read.
The rewards are many in this masterfully powerful debut novel that fuses a grand and terrible beauty with an elegant, richly layered narrative. Having at its core a handful of characters and two main settings—a village in Chechnya and a city hospital in the same country—the story juxtaposes the hurt that humans, sects, and governments wreak upon each other, against the sustaining forces of kinship, friendship, love and survival. What emerges from the pain and devastation is a convincing affirmation of the place of the child in our universe. This is the most moving novel I have read in a long time. ~ John & Rodie
In the story of Ursula, her main character, Atkinson has given us a hugely marvelous novel. Ursula's multiple deaths between 1910 and 1967 beautifully illustrate both the writer’s craft and the avenues presented by fate and even the smallest of life's decisions. Encompassing the history of a family in an English country home, as well as London during the Blitz and Hitler’s inner circle in Germany, Ursula’s tale brings one closer to the possible resonances between one’s daily life and the larger events of one’s time. Life After Life is a puzzle that delights, kaleidoscopically brilliant and a satisfying adventure to read.
On an island off British Columbia, a washed up parcel is found that contains a Hello Kitty lunchbox, two diaries, letters, and a watch once owned by a Kamikaze pilot. Thus is set in motion a tale that is truly in a class by itself, a proverbial cabinet of wonders. Having two main characters -- a teenage Japanese schoolgirl and a writer in Canada -- Ozeki's work reinvents the novel as a form, its many brilliant facets illuminating topics that include Zen, bullying, quantum theory, and suicide. A 104-year-old Buddhist num, an enigmatic father, and a forebearing husband bolster a marvelous supporting cast. Ozeki, author of the great novels My Year of Meats and All Over Creation, has hit another one clearn out of the park.
Any soul would benefit from the gentle lessons of strength, endurance, friendship and respect contained in this 20th anniversary reissue of an inspiring classic survival tale from the Yukon River Valley. It would make an especially great gift for landmark birthdays in the over-50s crowd. Beautifully and vividly, it brings home abiding truths about aging on the levels of the individual and society.
Beryl Markham was a pioneering bush pilot in Africa and an aviatrix who set global distance marks. It wasn’t just her daring that earned this memoir number eight on National Geographic’s list of The 100 Greatest Adventure Books of All Time. What also makes Markham’s book an engrossing read are the grace, lyricism, and vividness of her writing as she recounts her coming of age in Africa, her love of horses and flying, and her feelings of affinity for the land and its people. Highly recommended for fans of the wild or those with an African itinerary. ~ John
Based on the excellence of this debut and of her second novel, Closed Doors, Lisa O’Donnell of Scotland is one author whose every book I would read. In The Death of Bees, through alternating voices of two sisters whose actions have been driven by frightful family circumstances, O’Donnell has an uncanny gift for making her young protagonists’ thoughts and feelings our own. The novel’s grim edge is redeemed by riveting storytelling and by comedic flourishes that seem to fall in just the right spots. I loved this book.
Calling Twain, “the poet of American life in the 19th century,” a friend emailed me an extended passage from this book, whose primary material is comprised of dictated memoirs Twain forbade to have published until 100 years after his death. In the passage, Twain lyrically recalls his experiences on a farm in his youth, immersing me in the farm environment: the stain of blackberries and walnut hulls, the sound of woodpeckers and pheasants, the autumn patterns of hickories and sumacs, the eating of a prize watermelon. Reading these words, I felt privileged to hear from this great American writer a voice rarely present in his novels and other writings. I take heart in my friend’s comment, that this is “a book to browse through in order to explore the workings of that cantankerous, brilliant mind.” ~ John
This mesmerizing, lush and lyrical novel places you right in the highlands of Malaya. Intriguing circumstances bring together the two main characters: a Chinese-Malayan who survives a World War II prison camp but loses her sister there, and a man who once served as the gardener of Japan’s emperor. Themes of memory, forgetfulness, and forgiveness, on personal and historical levels, unfold in settings that reflect the cultivated and wild aspects of the mind: a Japanese garden, a tea plantation, and the jungle. Eng’s descriptive art and his nuanced rendering of human and natural landscapes make this a most memorable book. ~ John
In this masterful, engaging and thoroughly researched account, Horwitz pulls away the cloak of myth surrounding John Brown and his 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry, bringing forward the human aspects of Brown’s many roles including those of husband, father, charismatic abolitionist leader, patriot of his cause, and martyr. While detailing the background of the raid as well as its far-reaching consequences, Horwitz highlights Brown’s impact on historical figures including Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Robert E. Lee, Emerson, Thoreau and Lincoln. The raid and Brown’s vision are thus placed fully in the context of the Civil War and, more importantly, of a legacy that endures to this day. I found this to be an enlightening, inspiring and highly enjoyable read. ~ John
Cold Mountain author Frazier, one of the great novelists of our time, has created a beautifully gripping novel through old-fashioned storytelling and his genius for bringing to life the people and landscape of the rural and wild Appalachia he intimately knows. He unfolds his tale with masterful nuances of motive, detail and emotion through the eyes of each of his characters, including Luce, his heroine, who cares for her murdered sister’s children while trying to unravel their dangerous ways. Janis, Andrew and Morley love this book, too. Bravo, Charles Frazier! ~ John
You don't need a ticket to Peru to enjoy this refreshingly candid, humorous yet very informative account of exploration in the land of the Inca. The author, a city creature, keeps us smiling as he struggles in the footsteps of Hiram Bingham, the original “discoverer” of Machu Picchu in 1911. Along the way we get a vivid feel for life on the trail in cloud forest and jungle, along breathtaking peaks and ridges, and among the ruins themselves. Adams leavens the narrative with history, politics, customs and culture, making for a very balanced and fascinating introduction to this magical part of the world.
“Revision is the process a poem endures to become its best self.” Skinner’s grab-bag of wisdom for poets with various levels of experience has a conversational tone and helpful, encouraging advice on large-picture issues—including MFA programs, “po-biz”, and how to cultivate discipline and a healthy view toward one’s poetry—as well as the finer points involved in the life of poetry. I appreciate the way he candidly interweaves his life experiences, including his divorce and his past career as a private eye, using them to illuminate the poetry writing process. I marked numerous passages that shed light on my life as a poet and poetry teacher: “Revision is the process poets endure to become their best poems.” ~ John
What gratitude I feel for having concluded 2011 with this moving, intensely lyrical novel! Revolving around the experiences of Japanese “picture brides” who came to America in the early 1900s, Otsuka’s book employs, to masterful effect, devices of poetry including litany and refrain to create a novel that is at once intimate and panoramic. Instead of characters in the traditional sense, Otsuka conjures up what seem like voices in the hundreds, each voice, each sentence, a thread in a hypnotic tapestry. Having as the latter part of its time frame the “relocation” of Japanese-Americans at the outset of War II, this beautifully kaleidoscopic work spans farms, fields, cities and suburbs to capture the complexities of cultural collision, racial discrimination, and myriad other struggles of finding a life in a new land. This slender volume is a masterpiece. ~ John
Imagine a rip-roaring, page-turning young adult novel whose protagonist is a talented, award-winning—poet?! From the opening pages, in which that protagonist, Jonathan, leans from a Seattle bridge rail, high on frozen vodka grapes and poised to jump, he invokes past masters of the lyric craft including Whitman and Kerouac in a narrative that braids two currents: the tragic death of his twin brother; and Jonathan’s assignment to write the memoir of a dying World War II survivor. Jonathan’s pain finds expression in the epic poem he composes for his brother, and in playing his acoustic guitar. In writing the war veteran’s story, he finds redemption through another’s suffering. Teens need to witness heroes who are poets, who articulate life’s passages in verbal, lyrical form. Wesselhoeft has taken that gift, goosed it up with several cases of Red Bull, and produced a fine, moving and valuable coming of age tale. Ages 14 & up. ~ John
Having as their setting Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, a place caught between modernization and the pull of traditional culture, these haunting, quietly moving and elegiac stories evoke themes of loss, exile, dislocation, and the search for identity; and find redemption in family, clan, and the handing down of stories through generations and across the span between old and new worlds. Stunning in its beauty albeit almost heart-breakingly sad, this is the strongest short story collection I have read. ~ John
This toothsome and affectionate memoir, punctuated by some of the author's favorite recipes, opens with "The Queen of Mold"-a mother dangerously inventive in the kitchen-and unfolds, memory by memory, with dishes richly infusing Reichel's life experiences. Thoroughly engaging, funny and wise, this book is a delight. ~John
I acquired a genuine feeling of warmth toward the characters in this lyrically enchanting novel of a coastal Oregon town named Neawanaka, whose inhabitants include a talking crow named Moses and a doctor who names his twelve allotted daily cigarettes after the apostles. Just the right dose of magical realism infuses this quintessentially Northwest tale whose themes involve family, love, compassion, a nature-based sense of the sacred, and Native American and Irish ethnic identities. Storytelling at its finest, this book is a joy to read. ~ John
I relished this classic page-turning novel from 1950, which takes place in the jungles of Malaya during World War II, and in London and the outback of Queensland Australia thereafter. A tale of endurance and triumph over adversity, wrapped around a story of love, it features plucky protagonist Jean Paget, strong and resourceful and possessing true grit, who survives a forced march at the hands of Japanese forces that evolves into an odyssey lasting well into the post-War years. Shute has an engaging storytelling style that vividly brings to life the various landscapes and subtly conveys the motivations of the characters who inhabit them. This novel moves along at a satisfying clip and is a most rewarding experience. ~ John
When I finished this terrific novel, I immediately wanted to start reading it again, just so I could stay with the characters, among them a Bronx prostitute and her daughter, a young man from Ireland, and a wealthy woman living on the Upper East Side. Their diversity of experience, within the setting of New York City in 1974, represents a compelling human panorama. Serving as an axis for these artfully linked lives, and touching them in ways great and small, a man walks on a wire between the Twin Towers. This is a brilliant, exhilarating tale. ~ John
Young Adults and adults alike have much to gain from reading this heartfelt coming of age novel, set in and around the Spokane Indian Reservation and based on Alexie’s own youth. Excelling at academics and basketball at a mostly-white high school off the reservation brings the protagonist’s view of the miseries and comforts of his own family and tribe into sharp relief, while dead-on humor and a supreme sense of irony—two of Alexie’s strong suits as a writer—elevate the whole into a masterpiece of fiction and cultural commentary. Ages 12 & up.
Jordan turned in an impressive debut with this 2009 novel taking place in World War II-era Mississippi Delta. Now the source of a powerful film, the book revolves around a friendship between two war veteran sons from two families, one black, one white, one sharecropping, the other owning land on a cotton farm. In this page-turner, Jordan deftly weaves alternating chapters, each chapter devoted to the voice of one of a handful of characters, to create a compelling narrative that captures the nuances and complexities of the American issue of race.
(Norton)Taking as his premise the little-known history of Royalist black settlers to whom the British granted freedom in Nova Scotia after the American Revolution, Hill has crafted a compelling novel around an extraordinary heroine whose life odyssey speaks for the experiences of many. Through vivid, fascinating detail that reflects devoted research in addition to a great gift for writing, we follow Aminata Diallo from her African village to capture, enslavement and the Middle Passage; her work on a South Carolina indigo plantation and as a servant in Charleston; her service for the British Army in Manhattan; her hardships in Canada; a return to Africa and an experimental settlement in Sierra Leone; and finally her life as a darling of London abolitionists. In addition to being a great read, Aminata’s engaging story of survival and triumph, steeped in history as well as abiding patterns of human existence, throws a unique and necessary light on the enduring global issue of race. ~ John
Published two years after the author's death, this novel won the Pulitzer Prize in 1957, and remains one of the most beautiful works in the American language. Death and family-Agee renders the collision of these in the most intimate, tender, and eloquent terms. His book is unparalleled for the sheer brilliance of its poetry, for its nuanced evocations of affection, grief, and the ways we think and feel, and for its loving attention to the gestures of everyday life.
Petterson’s celebrated and compelling coming of age story set in rural Norway has everything you want in a novel, including a strong narrator whose calm, articulate voice shifts seamlessly between time frames, weaving his life into a whole. I especially appreciate the brush strokes of detail that render landscape and the rhythms of nature—river, forest, cabin, lake—around a meditative yet propulsive drama involving son, father, and two families. Eloquent and hard-won truths coming from the speaker’s advancing years complete this very satisfying read. ~ John
This novel possesses the beauty that places Frazier in the top rank of American fiction writers-indelible vividness of imagery in scene after marvelous scene; breathtaking lyricism; sterling humor, irony and wit; and a voice that places us on intimate terms with characters and the landscapes in which they move. Will, the protagonist, makes certain fateful decisions that delineate him sharply in relation not only to Claire, the love of his life, but to the character of early America, the force of westward expansion, and the near-annihilation of American Indian peoples and ways. Through Will and two compelling Indian figures-Bear, a chief who adopts Will at an early age; and Featherstone, a some-time adversary and friend-we gather insights into the Cherokee vision of the world, concepts of land and its ownership, and the complex border regions between Indian, white, and mixed-blood peoples. The sweep of this work held me through two consecutive readings. ~ John
A novel of the Oregon Trail that richly details the westward odyssey, and a moving portrait of the collisions and confluences of European and Indian cultures.
This novel serves as my late introduction to Ian McEwan, and I’m grateful to know the rest of his books await me. Following one successful professional man’s life during a Saturday, this addictive story charts a course that encompasses a broad spectrum of finely rendered emotions, details, and observations touching on subjects including society, family, aging, and love. Harrowing yet supremely satisfying, Saturday is a great place to begin discovering the reasons why Ian McEwan is one of the finest novelists working today. ~ John
Spare and eloquently haunting is Wiesel’s voice, the voice of a teenage boy witnessing the destruction of his family amid the mass murder in concentration camps where he lived, including Auschwitz and Buchenwald. A terrible beauty endures in this survivor’s account, made more essential as Holocaust survivors pass away. As Wiesel, who died in July of ’16, notes of the book’s place in our collective memory, “To forget would not only be dangerous but offensive; to forget the dead would be akin to killing them again.”
These poems-each a distinct marvel and an invention in the finest sense of the word-are tight bundles of idea, image, and rhyme, bearing initial surprises like sparks, then offering much to ponder on successive readings. Thought-provoking in their brevity, plain-spoken yet often surreal, they derive their imagery and pleasure, their odd truths and their playfulness, from the everyday life that surrounds us.
Beautifully written by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Home Town, The Soul of a New Machine, and Among Schoolchildren, this book tells the story of a remarkable and inspiring doctor who has fought tuberculosis and AIDS epidemics in some of the most wretched places on earth, including the central plateau of Haiti, a slum in Lima, Peru, and in Siberian prisons. Mountains Beyond Mountains, like a bracing ray of light in a dark and cynical time, gave me perspectives not only on global health crises, but also on the power of the individual to change the world. -- John
Barack Obama is a marvelous and inspiring writer and his gifts with language are engaging and profound. I really enjoyed the extra reward of “hearing” his voice as I read this memoir. With a fine sense of detail and dialogue, he tells of his youth in Hawaii, his further education on the mainland at institutions of higher learning and as an organizer and social activist on the gritty streets of Chicago, and his difficulties and breakthroughs in searching out his roots in Africa and the mystery of his father. This is a great work in the American vein, yet one that reveals the origins of global consciousness he brought to the White House. ~ John
Quite likely the most delightful book I've ever read and destined to be an all-time favorite, Durrell's memoir of his youth as a budding naturalist on the Greek isle of Corfu is a joy and a balm to one's cares. As lyrically insightful describing flora and fauna as he is detailing the comedic foibles of his family and the local population, he infuses his tale with warmth and a sense of wonder. Save this enormously satisfying book for your next vacation.
I have had a life-long fantasy of hosting one of my heroes, Benjamin Franklin, on a tour of the modern world. Given his imaginative curiosity about the processes of nature and the ways knowledge of that realm could be put to practical use, I believe he would by fascinated yet not surprised at where some of his discoveries have led. Isaacson's engaging biography takes us beyond the image of the kite-flying inventor of the lightning rod, bifocals and swim fins, beyond the spinner of adages about fish and house guests and pennies earned, to the whole, complicated Franklin. This unsparing yet appreciative look at "the most accomplished American of his age," in Isaacson's words, shows Franklin in the light of his times and our own. In so doing, it gives us a vivid portrait of a man whose virtues seem to be growing rare in public figures, virtues including pragmatism, tolerance-religious and otherwise-respect for the individual, humility, lack of pretense, and opposition to arbitrary authority. ~ John
The premise of this compelling page-turner-a black man who owns slaves in 19th-century Virginia plantation country-serves as the springboard for a masterful exploration of the pivotal American issue of race. The stately beauty, authority and authenticity of Jones' writing lay the groundwork for an intricate yet accessible tale that involves a mosaic of memorable characters-overseer, slaves, masters black and white, free blacks, and whites of various stations and means. Vivid language that unveils without compromise the nuances, complexities, and profound truths of the peculiar American institution makes this a must-read for anyone interested in great literature. A novel for the ages. ~ John
In these beautifully powerful and wide-ranging essays, Kingsolver brings her passion to bear on large issues—globalism, war and genocide, genetically engineered foods, hunger and homelessness—while embracing the virtues of conservation, wild places, buying organic and locally grown foods, biodiversity, sustainable living, poetry, basic human kindness, and, yes, independent bookstores. Yet she writes as though she's speaking to you over coffee, and her words spring from the ground of specific observations in the places where she lives and visits: a bobcat seen outside a window of her home in the Tucson hills, scarlet macaws spotted in a Costa Rican jungle, a clutch of eggs gathered from her daughter Lily's chicken coop. How fortunate we are to have a brilliant novelist whose keyboard clicks every bit as lively for her nonfiction. ~ John
Not since Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain have I longed to recommend a novel to almost everyone I know, for the sheer magic of its story-telling. Having as its main characters an asthmatic eleven-year-old boy, his nine-year-old sister who writes heroic verse set in the Old West, and their father, a high school janitor whose faith bears remarkable powers, the story revolves around their search for a lost older brother in the Badlands of North Dakota. Along the way, through beautifully descriptive and figurative language and a narrative voice that possesses both humor and wisdom, the author gives us glimpses into the true nature of miracles, forgiveness, and difficult decisions. This moving page-turner is a true wonder, and gave me goose bumps at its conclusion. ~ John
This enthralling memoir of a bicultural childhood is one of the finest works of nonfiction I have read. With prose masterfully grounded in memory and the senses, Arana, born of a Peruvian father and an American mother, explores the ties and tensions between the two, and how those forces resonate intricacies in the cultural divide between Latin and North America. Her lyrical story brings to life a Peru animated by spirits and magic, as well as calamities brought on by earthquakes, rubber barons, and grinding poverty. A 2001 finalist for the National Book Award, this inspiring book sustains its importance through timeless themes: family, love, history, race, class, and the role of women in society. ~ John
Why did I wait so long to read this immensely satisfying National Book Award finalist from 1999? Amid the drama of a rural Colorado community, with all its cruelties and kindnesses, Haruf unfolds the intricate connections between main characters: a pregnant teenaged girl, a high school teacher and his young sons, and two aging bachelors who ranch outside town. For its old-fashioned storytelling that possesses elegance and authority, I would recommend this heartwarming, quietly compelling book to anyone. ~ John
In this book-length verse narrative, modern master poet Merwin has interwoven the complex threads of Hawaiian history with the account of one family and community stricken with leprosy on the island of Kauai. At once epic and intimate, Merwin's chronicle also fuses the strains of cruelty, intolerance and greed in Hawaii's uniquely tragic past with the primal beauty of the islands themselves. I found this to be an uncommonly moving and rich reading experience.
This endearing and highly engaging novel revolves around the written correspondence between a precocious, persistent and ingenious Brooklyn youth named Joey Margolis and Charlie Banks, star hitter and third baseman for the New York Giants. Their relationship begins to unfold in 1940, and as time passes we get glimpses of developments in the nation and the world through news headlines and Joey's periodic letters of advice to Franklin D. Roosevelt. A unique reading experience with a quirky sense of humor and great heart, this book is one-of-a-kind. Take it on your next flight, take it to the beach, take it to the nearest Adirondack chair on a sunny lawn. It's the perfect summer read. ~ John
I came late to this powerful dystopian masterpiece, originally published in 1986, its resurgence fueled in part by the highly praised television series. In a post-apocalyptic world where fertile women are scarce, “handmaids” are assigned to husbands of the ruling class for the purposes of procreation. The novel unfolds through the eyes of one of these women, whose voice I found so convincing it gave me goosebumps—her fears, her yearnings for freedom, her ironic sense of humor, and her reflections on her previous life. I don’t usually read speculative fiction, but this book knocked me out!
With sales of 1984 rocketing after the onset of the current administration, I decided it was time to revisit this 1949 dystopian classic of totalitarian rule. As I read along, I found myself wishing that Orwell could visit the present, could measure up his creation against the world in which we find ourselves. I sensed a chilling and eerie resonance between the two, even down to such details as the "telescreen" you carry in your pocket. Big Brother is watching!
Atkinson has won legions of fans through her Jackson Brodie mystery series as well as her literary novels including the time-bending Life After Life and its sequel, A God in Ruins. I’m reprising my review of her debut novel here because I’m so happy it introduced me to this gloriously talented author. The endearing voice of Ruby Lennox won me from this novel’s first paragraph, a womb’s-eye view of her conception above a York pet shop. Backlit by characters from preceding generations, her life unfolds through hilarious and harrowing circumstances. The winner of Britain’s Whitbread award, this is an engrossing read, and one of my all-time favorite books.