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My favorite reads of 2017

Every year at this time I like to think back on the books I’ve read in the past 12 months that affected me the most. These are the books I’m most grateful for in 2017.

Hala Alyan: Salt Houses. This debut novel gives us the multigenerational story of a Palestinian family – moving from a young girl’s fortune seen in coffee dregs to the dispersal of the family in the 1967 Six-Day War and the many subsequent moves and changes. It’s a story of political conflict, mourning home and trying to set down new roots, and the emotional realities of being foreign. Lovely writing and wonderfully drawn characters.

Cecil Bødker: The Water Farm. This translation from the Danish by Michael Goldman makes it clear why Cecil Bødker is one of Denmark’s most beloved writers. This short novel, the second in a trilogy, is about a small “family” of social outcasts on an abandoned farm in the 1800’s. It is mesmerizing and tender, deceptively simple. It’s amazing how relevant this book is now, as it explores the making of art and the forging of human connections outside of society norms.

Wiley Cash: The Last Ballad. This novel touched on so much I care about. Ella May is a young Appalachian mill worker in 1929 who must balance supporting her children with her yearning for justice and a more full life. The red-baiting by the mill owners, racism and fear within the union, Ella May’s courage and the legacy she leaves her children and grandchildren make this a deeply satisfying historical novel.

Joan Dempsey: This is How It Begins. This debut novel begins when a group of gay teachers are fired for not allowing their students to express their Christian values igniting a fierce political battle about religious bias in schools. The grandmother of one of the teachers is an elderly art professor who has been hiding a value painting stolen by the Nazi’s. Dempsey skillfully weaves these two storylines together, while asking the reader to consider the passions of characters with widely different views about the world.

Rene Denfield: The Child Finder. This is both a suspenseful page-turner and a poignant tale of abuse and loss. Eight-year-old Madison disappeared three years ago, and private investigator Naomi is searching for her. Madison’s ordeal, and the story of Naomi’s own childhood story, are both heartbreaking and hopeful. Not an easy book to read, but I’m very glad I did. As she did in her last novel, The Enchanted, Denfield finds redemption in the most difficult situations and the lyricism of her prose carries you along on the journey.

Laleh Khadivi: A Good Country. I bought this book after hearing the author interviewed on NPR. The premise – a teenage boy of Pakistani descent growing up in Orange County and trying to figure out who he is – compelled me less than the nuance and thoughtfulness with which the author described his journey. The book did not disappoint me; it was thought-provoking and I still think about it, months after reading the last page.

Jan Maher: Earth as It Is. Set in the 1930’s, the story is about a heterosexual cross-dresser. I was quickly drawn into Charlie’s early struggles to understand his desire to dress in women’s clothes – hardly acceptable in small-town Texas society – and his transformation into Charlene, owner and operator of the beauty parlor in Heaven, Indiana. The pleasure of this novel comes both from the author’s strong, understated prose and the main character’s innate goodness in the face of an impossible situation.

Home Fire, Kamila Shamsie. Shamsie is one of my very favorite authors (her Burnt Shadows is one of my very favorite novels), and I think Home Fire is probably the book I loved most this year. It is a retelling of Antigone (but don’t let that deter you; I didn’t realize it until I was almost finished with my first reading!) that takes us from Northampton, MA to London to Pakistan. Isma and her twin siblings Aneeka and Parvaiz must negotiate their needs for love, work, and coming of age in a world that does not welcome their complicated family legacy. Gorgeous writing and so much to think about.

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Favorite books of 2014, part II

I read a lot, mostly fiction. It’s an important part of writing fiction. Plus it’s part of my job at the Odyssey Bookshop, where I serve on the selection committee for the bookstore’s First Edition Club. I read to learn, to be transported, to open my brain and heart to the world. And sometimes I read for the pure pleasure of a well-told story.

In July, I blogged about the books I loved most in the first half of 2014, including
A CONSTELLATION OF VITAL PHENOMENA by Anthony Marra
ACCIDENTS OF MARRIAGE, by Randy Susan Meyers
DESIRE OF THE MOTH, by Champa Bilwakesh
ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE by Anthony Doerr
REMEMBER ME LIKE THIS by Bret Anthony Johnston
MESSAGE FROM A BLUE JAY by Faye Rapoport DesPres
WHEN THE WAR CAME HOME by Bill Newman

As 2014 ends, it’s time to add more books to my favorites list.

THERE’S SOMETHING I WANT YOU TO DO: STORIES by Charles Baxter. Okay, I’m a fan, but this linked collection is something very special. Ten stories – five titled for virtues and five for vices – follow a cast of ordinary characters whose connections are both tenuous and strong, both arbitrary and plausible. And then there’s Baxter’s language, which is sometimes quietly breathtaking.

MAKE A WISH BUT NOT FOR MONEY by Suzanne Strempek Shea. A “dead” mall and an out-of-work bank teller as palm reader are the core of unpretentious, funny, and totally satisfying novel. Shea’s rendering of a community in decline – the physical place, the historical bonds, the emotional connections – is beautifully done and full of hope.

AN UNTAMED STATE by Roxanne Gay. Previously I knew this author’s essays and she’s smart and politically incisive, so I looked forward to her debut novel with great anticipation. It did not disappoint, but I’ve got to admit that this book isn’t easy to read. It’s about an upper class Haitian-born woman who is kidnapped and sexually assaulted while her father refuses to pay the ransom. Gay is fearless in exploring family dynamics both during and after the event. Fearless.

STATION ELEVEN by Emily St. John Mandel. This book is on many of the “best of 2014” lists so you’ve probably already read it, or read about it. I’ll just say that I’ve added it to the books I wish I’d written.

ETTA AND OTTO AND RUSSELL AND JAMES by Emma Hooper is an unashamedly charming and quirky journey story with unlikely heroes and unusual demons. In prose that is both simple and lyrical, Hooper’s debut novel offers a tapestry of memory, loss and hope against the backdrop of the Canadian countryside. I loved this book.

WORLD GONE BY is vintage Dennis Lehane. His characters - powerful and broken, brutal and surprisingly tender - embody the 1940's gangster culture, but reveal the layers underneath of race and class and choices not so different from the bankers and high society. As with THE GIVEN DAY and LIVE BY NIGHT, I am both swept into the epic story, and still thinking about the characters and their impossible choices days afterwards.

LAND OF LOVE AND DROWNING by Tiphanie Yanique. The U.S. Virgin Islands seen through the eyes of Yanique’s characters – two sisters who lost everything when their sea captain father’s ship went down – is a place where global history and racism play out in the workplace and the bedroom. Hurricanes and tourism and beaches and war all weave together in this powerful first novel.

And two books coming out in 2015 that I’ve had the pleasure of reading early copies and loved. Look for these in the spring (I’ll remind you!)

VERA’S WILL by Shelley Ettinger. This novel spans the twentieth century and three generations, transporting us from Russian pogroms to immigrant struggles, from family-ravaging homophobia to GLBT resistance. Ettinger's captivating story is rich with social and cultural detail, alive with generously-drawn characters, and unflinching in its political passion.

PLAY FOR ME by Céline Keating. This novel sings! Empty-nester Lily hears a duo perform in concert at her son’s college, she is captivated by the guitarist, the lure of music and the magic of performance. Keating writes about music with the knowledge of a music critic and the soul of a musician; she totally drew me into Lily’s life-changing enchantment with music and those who create it.

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My favorite reads of 2012

Choosing my favorite books of the year is both difficult and delicious. I read for so many different reasons: For language. For the love of story. For the opportunity to deconstruct how other writers structure plot and develop characters and keep my interest (or not). For the opportunity of having my neurons rearranged and my eyes exchanged for others’ so that I can experience the world anew. I read for comfort and discomfort. For pleasure and sorrow.

These are my (current) favorites of all the 2012 books I’ve learned from and lived inside, the books I curled up with, the books that goosed me. Some are written by friends and teachers, some are the latest offerings from beloved authors, and some written by strangers.

THE CUTTING SEASON by Attica Locke. I love novels in which history is a character, onstage and present. That’s what Attica Locke does in this half-mystery novel, half-literary exploration of how history – both personal and national – shapes us and our choices.  Read More 
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