I'm normally a pretty active reader, but this is the time of year when I read a lot. Thank goodness I live in the age of electricity, because these darkest days of the year would have been quite hard on my hankering to read if the only illumination were candles, oil lamps, and a fire in the hearth.
So here's what I've been reading:
First on the list are pilgrimage novels. It's a genre that's been around since ancient times....Moses leading his people in the wilderness, The Odysssey, Canterbury Tales....you get the drift. Somehow I ended up reading two recent pilgrimage stories back to back. They are two sides of the same coin, light and dark.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce is the lighter side of that pilgrimage coin. Joyce's writing reminds me of the late Barbara Pym. There are a lot of English countryside and characters populating this story. And though there is sadness, there is personal growth, growth in key relationships and enough sunshine to make one smile when remembering Harold and his story.
The Lighthouse by Alison Moore is the dark side of the coin. This title was shortlisted for The Booker Prize, which is often a signal that the book is going to be dark. Here's an excerpt from my review: "This is one of those subtly ominous stories, where one senses darkness
ahead even when the author is describing hot, sunny days. There is a lot
of metaphor, mostly unlikable characters, and not much happiness in the
The whole review is here.
If you're looking for historical works about dead presidents, this is your year. Maybe it has something to do with the election year.
Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin provided Steven Spielberg with much of the inspiration for the current Lincoln movie. This is an entirely different take on the Lincoln presidency than most previous works. Through the story one gets to see how Lincoln exercised the principle of "keep your friends close and your enemies closer."
Candice Millard's Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President provides an interesting biography of James Garfield and the circumstances surrounding his assassination. She does a great job of weaving together story lines that help the reader understand the era being covered. And it's the first that I learned that Robert Todd Lincoln was present for the assassinations of his father, James Garfield, and William McKinley....Interesting if you're a geek for creepy facts like that. I also highly recommend her previous presidential novel River of Doubt about Teddy Roosevelt.
Earlier this year I read God's Hotel: A Doctor, a Hospital, and a Journey to the Heart of Medicine by Victoria Sweet. I liked it so much that I borrowed her doctoral thesis, Rooted in the Earth, Rooted in the Sky from the Michigan State University library. So of course when Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen was published this fall it was on my must read list and I wasn't disappointed.
Toni Morrison's newest book, Home, is a beautifully written story about a sister and brother growing up in Jim Crow south. Frank Money is a Korean war veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress. His sister, Cee, has suffered trauma of her own. Together they find home, and healing.
The Orchardist is Amanda Coplin's first novel. And though she is not the wordsmith that Toni Morrison is, she delivers beautifully developed characters that one comes to love. The location is Washington state in the last half of the 19th century and early 20th century. Talmadge is a solitary man who has experienced much loss and has developed an orchard of apricots, apples, and plums. In his middle age two starving, pregnant, teenage girls appear at the edge of his world to steal fruit. In tending to them as he does the orchard an unusual family is formed. There is love, sadness, and redemption in this story of lives that have been broken by hard times and human cruelty. I should add that I kept going to the cupboard for dried apricots while I read this story...so you may want to stock up if you plan on reading this book.
Another first novel is The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh. The story is about a young woman who ages out of the child foster care system in California. The author has direct experience with this, which you can read about here. The author knows her subject and is able to develop interesting characters and story arc from that knowledge.
Every single one of the aforementioned books was a library book. So you can imagine my dismay upon reading this article in yesterday's NYT: A Dark and Itchy Night.
Maybe next I'll write a post on books that I own.....