Today I'm turning over the space to my husband, Norman Trepner, an avid reader and an all-around good guy. Take it away, Norm. —Susan
Once again Susan has asked me to share with her Chicken Spaghetti friends my favorite books I’ve read this past year, and once again I’m more than happy to comply!
Three of my top ten books were stories about teens and tweens. A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki, is the story of a 16 year old Japanese girl who writes in her diary about her 104-year old Buddhist nun great-grandmother, and the book also tells of a woman in a remote British Columbian island who finds the diary. At times laugh-out-loud funny and at times disturbing, this book, which was short listed for the Man Booker Prize, is a must read. Another powerful book that was short listed for the Man Booker Prize is We Need New Names, by NoViolet Bulawayo. This excellent debut novel follows the protagonist, named Darling, from her life as a 10 year old in Zimbabwe to her teen years living in Michigan. The third book, Brewster, by Mark Slouka, is the story of two teenage boys from troubled homes who become close friends. Set in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s in working class Brewster, New York, this hard-to-put down book is storytelling at its finest.
Four other fiction titles that made my top ten were: Someone, by Alice McDermott; The Sound of Things Falling, by Juan Gabriel Vásquez (translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean); TransAtlantic, by Colum McCann; and The Good Lord Bird, by James McBride. I could think of no better way to describe McDermott’s extraordinary novel about an ordinary woman than Janet Maslin does in her October 6th review for the New York Times, “…quietly exquisite…a wonderfully modest title for such a fine-tuned, beautiful book filled with so much universal experience, such haunting imagery, such urgent matters of life and death.” Set in Colombia, The Sound of Things Falling centers on a law professor who investigates the life of a man shot down on the streets of Bogotá. This deeply affecting book stayed with me long after I read the last page. TransAtlantic and The Good Lord Bird are both enjoyable novels that are based on historical events and figures. I found the 2013 National Book Award winner for fiction, The Good Lord Bird, to be the more imaginative and creative of the two, but I recommend both books.
Three nonfiction books made my top ten list.
- Wave is Sonali Deraniyagala’s memoir about the loss of her family in the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka. The author’s direct and brave telling of this devastating event and the impact on her life makes this otherwise too-sad-to-read book not only readable, but outstanding.
- Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity, by Andrew Solomon, was a highly acclaimed, 2012 book that I initially had no interest in reading due in part to the length of the book (900+ pages) and in part due to the subject matter (families of individuals affected by a spectrum of cognitive, physical or psychological differences). Then I heard an interview with the author on NPR and this became a book I had to read. Solomon writes with compassion and intelligence about people with differences and parenting to these people, and the book comes to a wonderful full circle as the author talks about his own challenges and feelings and his longing to be a parent.
- Compared to Wave and Far from the Tree, George Packer’s book The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, was practically light reading…yet it wasn’t. In alternating chapters Packer follows the lives of several individuals struggling to make it, and profiles various political, economic, and cultural figures (including Newt Gingrich, Colin Powell, Oprah, Sam Walton, Jay Z, and Andrew Breitbart). The result is a fast-moving socioeconomic history of the United States from the late 1970’s to 2012, and it is a warning about our country’s future if we can’t move toward a more just and balanced society. Last fall The Unwinding won the National Book Award for nonfiction.
Beyond my top ten, there are many books I read this past year that I would recommend. In no particular order they are as follows: The River Swimmer: Novellas, by Jim Harrison (two strong stories, with the title story being the more engaging of the two); the comic Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls: Essays, Etc., by David Sedaris (a pleasant change from some of my more intense books!); The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt (descriptions of the individuals and families of Manhattan’s Upper East Side and Greenwich Village more than compensate for an unbelievable story); Memories of a Marriage, by Louis Begley (a great dissection of a marriage between a socialite and her working class-turned successful husband); The Interestings, by Meg Wolitzer (I really liked this book that follows the lives of a group of friends who meet at a summer camp in the 1970’s even though at times I found myself playing Match the Character to the Real Life Person—think Steve Jobs, Alex Kelly); The Lowland, by Jhumpa Lahiri (not Lahiri’s best but still a worthwhile read); Harvest, by Jim Crace (if my top 10 list were a top 11 list, this book would be on it); Reconstructing Amelia, by Kimberly McCreight (the story is told in short chapters, texts, e-mails, and blog postings --- yes, it’s a gimmick but the plot and characters pulled me in and kept me engrossed); andIndiscretion, by Charles Dubow (high society, beautiful people, Manhattan, Paris, the Hamptons, betrayal, loss, and heartbreak; okay, I’ve sunk that low…and I loved it!)
I won’t list all of the all the books I managed to read this past year, but instead I’ll end by mentioning three good short story collections and my winner of the Stick with It & You Will Be Rewarded Award. The best short stories I read were Damage Control, by Amber Dermont; Siege 13, by Tamas Dobozy; and Tenth of December, by George Saunders. And the winner of the Stick with It Award is...drum roll please...The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton. I felt compelled to read this book because I wanted to read all this year’s books that were short listed for the Man Booker Prize. For the first 350 pages of this 848-page book I had to push myself to keep going, but then something clicked and the book got better and better and better. Should The Luminaries have won the Booker Prize? In my humble opinion, no, but nevertheless it was very good book that I’d recommend to people with patience...and time!
Happy reading to us all in 2014!