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Reading List: A Few Titles for Your Consideration

I live in Reston, Virginia, a Washington DC suburb, so our newspaper is The Washington Post. Last Sunday there was a whole section devoted to the best books of 2012. Most of the books I had not heard of and a majority of the authors were new to me.  It was refreshing to see names that have not been clogging the Best Seller list for years (although there was a Grisham book on the list).


I went through the 50 top fiction books (in the opinion of Washington Post reviewers) and found myself interested in about 18 of them. Below is an even ten books that sounded like something I would like to read.  Keep in mind that I have not cracked a spine on any of these books and I can vouch for only a smattering of the authors. So these are not endorsements, but more like a “Featured Titles” table just inside the door of your favorite brick and mortar book store covered with stacks of books for you to browse through. Below, in no particular order,  are the titles that I have selected and the standard jacket blurb summarizing each plot. Happy Browsing.

The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving by Jonathan Evison

Benjamin Benjamin has lost virtually everything—his wife, his family, his home, his livelihood. With few options, Ben enrolls in a night class called The Fundamentals of Caregiving, where he is instructed in the art of inserting catheters and avoiding liability, about professionalism, and on how to keep physical and emotional distance between client and provider.

But when Ben is assigned to tyrannical nineteen-year-old Trevor, who is in the advanced stages of Duchenne muscular dystrophy, he soon discovers that the endless mnemonics and service plan checklists have done little to prepare him for the reality of caring for a fiercely stubborn, sexually frustrated adolescent with an ax to grind with the world at large.

Though begun with mutual misgivings, the relationship between Trev and Ben evolves into a close camaraderie, and the traditional boundaries between patient and caregiver begin to blur as they embark on a road trip to visit Trev’s ailing father. A series of must-see roadside attractions divert them into an impulsive adventure interrupted by one birth, two arrests, a freakish dust storm, and a six-hundred-mile cat-and-mouse pursuit by a mysterious brown Buick Skylark.

Bursting with energy, this big-hearted and inspired novel ponders life’s terrible surprises and the heart’s uncanny capacity to mend.

I saw Fundamentals of Caregiving the other week in my local Barnes and Noble store and almost picked it up. As I deal with my own father’s health and age issues I thought the plot sounded like something that would resonate with me and it is currently number one on my “to read” list.

The Red House: A Novel by Mark Haddon

The set-up of Mark Haddon’s brilliant new novel is simple: Richard, a wealthy doctor, invites his estranged sister Angela and her family to join his for a week at a vacation home in the English countryside. Richard has just re-married and inherited a willful stepdaughter in the process; Angela has a feckless husband and three children who sometimes seem alien to her. The stage is set for seven days of resentment and guilt, a staple of family gatherings the world over.

But because of Haddon’s extraordinary narrative technique, the stories of these eight people are anything but simple. Told through the alternating viewpoints of each character, The Red House becomes a symphony of long-held grudges, fading dreams and rising hopes, tightly-guarded secrets and illicit desires, all adding up to a portrait of contemporary family life that is bittersweet, comic, and deeply felt. As we come to know each character they become profoundly real to us. We understand them, even as we come to realize they will never fully understand each other, which is the tragicomedy of every family. 

The Red House is a literary tour-de-force that illuminates the puzzle of family in a profoundly empathetic manner — a novel sure to entrance the millions of readers of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

I loved Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time but have yet to pick up another work by Mr. Haddon. Red House however sounds like it will fulfill my appetite for dysfunctional families. This too makes it high on my list. Another intriguing work by the same author is A Spot of Bother (released in 2006) which is not part of the Post’s best books of 2012, but is one I have mentally tucked away for future consideration.

True Believers by Kurt Anderson

In True Believers, Kurt Andersen—the New York Times bestselling and critically acclaimed author of Heyday and Turn of the Century—delivers his most powerful and moving novel yet. Dazzling in its wit and effervescent insight, this kaleidoscopic tour de force of cultural observation and seductive storytelling alternates between the present and the 1960s—and indelibly captures the enduring impact of that time on the ways we live now.

Karen Hollander is a celebrated attorney who recently removed herself from consideration for appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court. Her reasons have their roots in 1968—an episode she’s managed to keep secret for more than forty years. Now, with the imminent publication of her memoir, she’s about to let the world in on that shocking secret—as soon as she can track down the answers to a few crucial last questions.

As junior-high-school kids back in the early sixties, Karen and her two best friends, Chuck and Alex, roamed suburban Chicago on their bikes looking for intrigue and excitement. Inspired by the exotic romance of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, they acted out elaborate spy missions pitting themselves against imaginary Cold War villains. As friendship carries them through childhood and on to college—in a polarized late-sixties America riven by war and race as well as sex, drugs, and rock and roll—the bad guys cease to be the creatures of make-believe. Caught up in the fervor of that extraordinary and uncanny time, they find themselves swept into a dangerous new game with the highest possible stakes.

Today, only a handful of people are left who know what happened. As Karen reconstructs the past and reconciles the girl she was then with the woman she is now, finally sharing pieces of her secret past with her national-security-cowboy boyfriend and Occupy-activist granddaughter, the power of memory and history and luck become clear. A resonant coming-of-age story and a thrilling political mystery, True Believers is Kurt Andersen’s most ambitious novel to date, introducing a brilliant, funny, and irresistible new heroine to contemporary fiction.

Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon

As the summer of 2004 draws to a close, Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe are still hanging in there—longtime friends, bandmates, and co-regents of Brokeland Records, a kingdom of used vinyl located in the borderlands of Berkeley and Oakland. Their wives, Gwen Shanks and Aviva Roth-Jaffe, are the Berkeley Birth Partners, two semi-legendary midwives who have welcomed more than a thousand newly minted citizens into the dented utopia at whose heart—half tavern, half temple—stands Brokeland.

When ex-NFL quarterback Gibson Goode, the fifth-richest black man in America, announces plans to build his latest Dogpile megastore on a nearby stretch of Telegraph Avenue, Nat and Archy fear it means certain doom for their vulnerable little enterprise. Meanwhile, Aviva and Gwen also find themselves caught up in a battle for their professional existence, one that tests the limits of their friendship. Adding another layer of complication to the couples’ already tangled lives is the surprise appearance of Titus Joyner, the teenage son Archy has never acknowledged and the love of fifteen-year-old Julius Jaffe’s life.

An intimate epic, a NorCal Middlemarch set to the funky beat of classic vinyl soul-jazz and pulsing with a virtuosic, pyrotechnical style all its own,Telegraph Avenue is the great American novel we’ve been waiting for. Generous, imaginative, funny, moving, thrilling, humane, triumphant, it is Michael Chabon’s most dazzling book yet.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

Meet Harold Fry, recently retired. He lives in a small English village with his wife, Maureen, who seems irritated by almost everything he does, even down to how he butters his toast. Little differentiates one day from the next. Then one morning the mail arrives, and within the stack of quotidian minutiae is a letter addressed to Harold in a shaky scrawl from a woman he hasn’t seen or heard from in twenty years. Queenie Hennessy is in hospice and is writing to say goodbye.

Harold pens a quick reply and, leaving Maureen to her chores, heads to the corner mailbox. But then, as happens in the very best works of fiction, Harold has a chance encounter, one that convinces him that he absolutely must deliver his message to Queenie in person. And thus begins the unlikely pilgrimage at the heart of Rachel Joyce’s remarkable debut. Harold Fry is determined to walk six hundred miles from Kingsbridge to the hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed because, he believes, as long as he walks, Queenie Hennessey will live.

Still in his yachting shoes and light coat, Harold embarks on his urgent quest across the countryside. Along the way he meets one fascinating character after another, each of whom unlocks his long-dormant spirit and sense of promise. Memories of his first dance with Maureen, his wedding day, his joy in fatherhood, come rushing back to him—allowing him to also reconcile the losses and the regrets. As for Maureen, she finds herself missing Harold for the first time in years.

And then there is the unfinished business with Queenie Hennessy.

A novel of unsentimental charm, humor, and profound insight into the thoughts and feelings we all bury deep within our hearts, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry introduces Rachel Joyce as a wise—and utterly irresistible—storyteller.

The Bartender’s Tale by Ivan Doig

Tom Harry has a streak of frost in his black pompadour and a venerable bar called The Medicine Lodge, the chief watering hole and last refuge of the town of Gros Ventre, in northern Montana. Tom also has a son named Rusty, an “accident between the sheets” whose mother deserted them both years ago.The pair make an odd kind of family, with the bar their true home, but they manage just fine. 

Until the summer of 1960, that is, when Rusty  turns twelve. Change arrives with gale force, in the person of Proxy, a taxi dancer Tom knew back when, and her beatnik daughter, Francine. Is Francine, as Proxy claims, the unsuspected legacy of her and Tom’s past? Without a doubt she is an unsettling gust of the future, upending every certainty in Rusty’s life and generating a mist of passion and pretense that seems to obscure everyone’s vision but his own. As Rusty struggles to decipher the oddities of adult behavior and the mysteries build toward a reckoning, Ivan Doig wonderfully captures how the world becomes bigger and the past becomes more complex in the last moments of childhood.

Canada by Richard Ford

“First, I’ll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later.”

When fifteen-year-old Dell Parsons’ parents rob a bank, his sense of normal life is forever altered. In an instant, this private cataclysm drives his life into before and after, a threshold that can never be uncrossed.

His parents’ arrest and imprisonment mean a threatening and uncertain future for Dell and his twin sister, Berner. Willful and burning with resentment, Berner flees their home in Montana, abandoning her brother and her life. But Dell is not completely alone. A family friend intervenes, spiriting him across the Canadian border, in hopes of delivering him to a better life. There, afloat on the prairie of Saskatchewan, Dell is taken in by Arthur Remlinger, an enigmatic and charismatic American whose cool reserve masks a dark and violent nature.

Undone by the calamity of his parents’ robbery and arrest, Dell struggles under the vast prairie sky to remake himself and define the adults he thought he knew. But his search for grace and peace only moves him nearer to a harrowing and murderous collision with Remlinger, an elemental force of darkness.

A true masterwork of haunting and spectacular vision from one of America’s greatest writers, Canada is a profound novel of boundaries traversed, innocence lost and reconciled, and the mysterious and consoling bonds of family. Told in spare, elegant prose, both resonant and luminous, it is destined to become a classic.

Stay Awake by Dan Chaon

Before the critically acclaimed novels Await Your Reply and You Remind Me of Me, Dan Chaon made a name for himself as a renowned writer of dazzling short stories. Now, in Stay Awake, Chaon returns to that form for the first time since his masterly Among the Missing, a finalist for the National Book Award.

In these haunting, suspenseful stories, lost, fragile, searching characters wander between ordinary life and a psychological shadowland. They have experienced intense love or loss, grief or loneliness, displacement or disconnection—and find themselves in unexpected, dire, and sometimes unfathomable situations.

A father’s life is upended by his son’s night terrors—and disturbing memories of the first wife and child he abandoned; a foster child receives a call from the past and begins to remember his birth mother, whose actions were unthinkable; a divorced woman experiences her own dark version of “empty-nest syndrome”; a young widower is unnerved by the sudden, inexplicable appearances of messages and notes—on dollar bills, inside a magazine, stapled to the side of a tree; and a college dropout begins to suspect that there’s something off, something sinister, in his late parents’ house.

Dan Chaon’s stories feature scattered families, unfulfilled dreamers, anxious souls. They exist in a twilight realm—in a place by the window late at night when the streets are empty and the world appears to be quiet. But you are up, unable to sleep. So you stay awake.

The Round House by Louise Erdrich

One Sunday in the spring of 1988, a woman living on a reservation in North Dakota is attacked. The details of the crime are slow to surface as Geraldine Coutts is traumatized and reluctant to relive or reveal what happened, either to the police or to her husband, Bazil, and thirteen-year-old son, Joe. In one day, Joe’s life is irrevocably transformed. He tries to heal his mother, but she will not leave her bed and slips into an abyss of solitude. Increasingly alone, Joe finds himself thrust prematurely into an adult world for which he is ill prepared.

While his father, who is a tribal judge, endeavors to wrest justice from a situation that defies his efforts, Joe becomes frustrated with the official investigation and sets out with his trusted friends, Cappy, Zack, and Angus, to get some answers of his own. Their quest takes them first to the Round House, a sacred space and place of worship for the Ojibwe. And this is only the beginning.

Written with undeniable urgency, and illuminating the harsh realities of contemporary life in a community where Ojibwe and white live uneasily together, The Round House is a brilliant and entertaining novel, a masterpiece of literary fiction. Louise Erdrich embraces tragedy, the comic, a spirit world very much present in the lives of her all-too-human characters, and a tale of injustice that is, unfortunately, an authentic reflection of what happens in our own world today.

Watergate by Thomas Mallon

From one of our most esteemed historical novelists, a remarkable retelling of the Watergate scandal, as seen through a kaleidoscope of its colorful perpetrators and investigators.

For all the monumental documentation that Watergate generated—uncountable volumes of committee records, court transcripts, and memoirs—it falls at last to a novelist to perform the work of inference (and invention) that allows us to solve some of the scandal’s greatest mysteries (who did erase those eighteen-and-a-half minutes of tape?) and to see this gaudy American catastrophe in its human entirety. 

In Watergate, Thomas Mallon conveys the drama and high comedy of the Nixon presidency through the urgent perspectives of seven characters we only thought we knew before now, moving readers from the private cabins of Camp David to the klieg lights of the Senate Caucus Room, from the District of Columbia jail to the Dupont Circle mansion of Theodore Roosevelt’s sharp-tongued ninety-year-old daughter (“The clock is dick-dick-dicking”), and into the hive of the Watergate complex itself, home not only to the Democratic National Committee but also to the president’s attorney general, his recklessly loyal secretary, and the shadowy man from Mississippi who pays out hush money to the burglars.

Praised by Christopher Hitchens for his “splendid evocation of Washington,” Mallon achieves with Watergate a scope and historical intimacy that surpasses even what he attained in his previous novels, as he turns a “third-rate burglary” into a tumultuous, first-rate entertainment.

I hope you found something here that piqued your interest or might make a nice little Christmas present for a friend or relative. I know Black Friday has come and gone, but surely there will be other sales.  Perhaps Cyber Monday will hold a few deals and you can pick up a few of these titles for a song…

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4 comments on “Reading List: A Few Titles for Your Consideration

  1. Hope my book coming out in mid 2013 makes your list! Please look for “A Junkies nightmare, Coming Clean”

  2. Mark Haddon is excellent, and I’ve also read a few by Dan Chaon. This is a great list 🙂

  3. My interest is grabbed by your selections…they all sound intrigueing.

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