Readers & Writers hosts Ellen Rocco and Chris Robinson, book maven John Ernst, NCPR staff and friends, and listeners share their picks for the best books to read by the fireside or to give to friends and family this holiday season.
Here’s our book list–for winter reading and holiday gift giving.
Please add titles in the comment section or email them to me: email@example.com.
Here’s what we’ve got so far.
From co-host John Ernst (full reviews for many of these coming after the show):
Nora Webster – Colm Toibin
A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling Over the Memory of Sand Creek – Ari Kelman
Let Me Be Frank With You - Richard Ford
Off the Sidelines – Kirsten Gillibrand
Lila – Marilynne Robinson
The Children Act - Ian McEwan
The Passage to Power, Vol. 4 of the Years of Lyndon Johnson – Robert M. Caro
Far from the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity – Andrew Solomon
The Patriarch – David Nasaw
The windows are closed and outdoor sounds are muffled by snow. This quiet of winter leaves me feeling ambitious. I can take on more challenging reading assignments. It is time for Proust, or fat Russian novels and multi-volume Nordic memoirs. The slowness and solitude of a North Country winter feels like a great gift. But there is danger lurking too. The other morning, I watched a panel on Book TV composed of Ann Patchett, Francine Prose, Nicholson Baker and Walter Moseley. These are all formidable voices of and for literature. We’ve interviewed Patchett and Prose on Readers and Writers. They were asked a simple question: Why do you like to read?
I’m fairly certain I’ve never been asked this question. It has not been a question I have posed to myself. Immediately, I fell in love with its simplicity and elegance. I waited anxiously for the answer offered by these authors. Moseley loved reading because his parents loved it. For Nicholson Baker and Francine Prose, they began their love of reading because of the relief it offered from childhood fears and boredom. Ann Patchett’s response was less direct and exposed the danger of winter reading. Indeed, she slipped the whole question of why she loves to read to admit that she loved reading above all else. She now resents invitations to parties or other social engagements because they interfere with her reading time.
I found something of myself in each of the responses from the panelists. I know I read for information and to stimulate my own thinking. I read to write. I read for both comfort and for discomfort. The only thing better than picking up a beloved author, is picking up someone who I disagree with and even hate. The works of those I conceive to be enemies demand a written response. They spur me to think for myself. So leave me to it.
Here’s what I’ve been reading lately:
- Amy Bloom, Lucky Us. I interviewed Ms. Bloom this past September, and you can find it archived at the Readers and Writers page. Amy Bloom is a brilliant writer on the theme of love. Lucky Us is a deep and moving exploration of how love works in a human life. It brings strangers together for lifelong commitments. It is a source of joy and subversion. It can lead to betrayal and the experience of loss so deep that you never recover. Bloom is a major talent with a gift for recreating time periods. When you finish this book, turn directly to her earlier novel, Away and her story collection, Where the God of Love Hangs Out.
- Lars Iyer, Wittgenstein Jr,, A Novel. Iyer is a professor of Philosophy who has written two books on Maurice Blanchot. Several years ago he turned to fiction, first with a blog, and then with a trilogy of comic novels that recall Samuel Beckett and Grouch Marx. Wittgenstein Jr is a different sort of novel. Yes, it is funny, in spots. But it is mainly an arresting character study of a philosophy professor who comes to be called “Wittgenstein Jr” by his students. I was surprised by how moving this novel is. Iyer is capable of writing on the most central of emotions in human life with perspicacity and empathy. I loved this book.
- Jonathan Lethem, Dissident Gardens. I read everything that Jonathan Lethem writes. I look forward to his novels like I used to look forward to Woody Allen movies, and with the same expectation that I would be enlightened in some way. Dissident Gardens is Lethem’s most ambitious book to date. You start with Rose Zimmer, loyal Communist in the forties and fifties, only to be corrupted by the civil rights movement in the sixties. Then you turn to Rose’s daughter Miriam, hippy and activist who married an Irish folksinger. Finally you skip to the contemporary era, the War on Terror, and experience the traumas of the past and the loss of liberty in the present through Miriam’s son, Sergius, and Rose’s stepson (it’s more complicated than this) Cicero Lookins. What a fantastic world this book is.
- Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping to Gilead. Last year, I interviewed the great essayist and memoirist, Richard Rodriguez. We talked a lot about the literature of spirituality from St. Augustine to St. Theresa Avila, and from Tolstoy to Thomas Merton. We could have included the writings of Marilynne Robinson in this list. Robinson’s novels are works of great beauty in language. This quality serves her subject well. It is nothing less than the uncanny sacredness of ordinary life. While reading her novels I kept thinking of Socrates’ great line about being kind to everyone you meet because they are fighting unimaginable battles within. These spiritual struggles are made visible in deceivingly simple and clear ways in Robinson’s work.
- Stuart Neville, The Ghosts of Belfast. The path to contemporary sciences – robotics, virtual reality, quantum physics, and so on – were paved by science fiction writers from Asimov to Phillip K. Dick. In the same vein, contemporary examinations of justice in a world of genocide, torture, pre-emptive wars, terrorism and Apartheid have been paved by crime novels. Neville’s novel is a thriller set in Dublin and Belfast. It is a profound study of humanity, psychic trauma and legal systems in times of war.
- Danielle Allen, Our Declaration. Allen is a political theorist who writes on both ancient and modern political themes. Her book on civil rights and equality, Talking to Strangers, is an extraordinary study of race in America and deserves to be considered a modern classic. Her new book, Our Declaration, is a close reading of the Declaration of Independence. When was the last time you read this document? Allen offers you a thoughtful, scholarly and provocative reading of this founding document.
- Charles D’Ambrosio, Loitering, New and Collected Essays. Prior to picking up this volume, I had read only one D’Ambrosio essay, and it was on “Hell House,” a Halloween treat constructed from the horrifying fantasies of punishment of fundamentalist Christians. This essay is included here. D’Ambrosio thinks of the essay in much the same way as Montaigne: it is a space for reflection and uncertainty to be explored. It is experimental ground for writing and thinking. D’Ambrosio is no cupcake. He is a perfect representative of Seattle culture. He’s dark and rainy, wet and uncomfortable, but innovative and passionate too. You can overdose on his world, so be careful.
- Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything. I can’t think of a more incisive and important social commentator working today than Naomi Klein. No Logo and The Shock Doctrine were stunning inquiries into marketing and economic theory. Her new work is a study of climate change. Klein takes on climate science deniers in the book, but her real target are mainstream environmentalists and environmental groups that express agreement with climate science, but fail to grasp and articulate the political and ecological consequences of that science. If I could, I would put this book in the hands of every college first year student. The study of global climate change should be central to their education.
- Cornel West, Black Prophetic Fire. This book is a series of conversations between West and German scholar Christa Buchendorf on Frederick Douglass, WEB DuBois, MLK Jr., Malcolm X, Ella Baker and Ida B. Wells. It is a fine primer on these thinkers and activists. I was ashamed to say that I knew very little about Ida B. Wells. Her works in opposition to lynching are sadly timely today.
- Simon Wiesenthal, The Sunflower. This is a work that blurs the line between fiction and non-fiction. It is a fascinating project. The book opens with a story told by Wiesenthal. While in a concentration camp, Wiesenthal is called to the bed of a dying SS officer. The Nazi asks the Jew for forgiveness for his participation in an atrocity. Should the Jewish prisoner forgive the Nazi? This question is then answered by a sizable list of contemporary thinkers, scholars and religious figures.
- Atul Gawande, Being Human. Medical science and technology have altered the line between life and death. Generally, this is a good thing. But the alteration of these categories has profound ethical consequences for doctors and patients alike. Moreover, it demands contemporary reflection on what it means to be human, today, and without resort to answers from past ages. Gawande is an especially thoughtful writer on that region where medicine, politics and philosophy intersect.
- Barron H. Lerner, The Good Doctor: A Father, A Son, and the Evolution of Medical Ethics. Okay, so I admit that I will be teaching Medical Ethics in the Spring and so I had to read through a fairly large pile of new books. The Gawande volume above was the best of these. But I liked Lerner’s book too. What Lerner offers is a comparison of the practice of medicine from his father’s practice to his own.
- Lisa Bloom, Suspicion Nation: The Inside Story of the Trayvon Martin Injustice and Why We Continue to Repeat It. The issue of mass incarceration reveals an American criminal justice system infected by racism. Bloom studies the Trayvon Martin case closely, and then uses it as a window onto the distortions of justice that have engendered a growing protest movement.
- Michael Nieto Garcia, Autobiography in Black and Brown. Garcia has produced a fascinating reading of the role of ethnic identity – being black or being brown — in the works of Richard Wright and Richard Rodriguez. Sometimes, odd combinations of writers produce profound insights, and this is the case in this book. What lies behind the form of autobiography and ethnic identity in the hands of literary masters is a liberated and experimental inquiry into the self that uses strictures to incite the imagination. Thanks to Garcia’s study, I will be re-reading Wright and Rodriguez in the very near future.
Short fiction–new and classic; some Man Booker finalists; and some western U.S.-based fiction I’ve revisited.
David Means, The Secret Goldfish stories (2005); Assorted Fire Events (2012)
Michael Coffey, The Business of Naming Things
Flannery O’Connor, The Complete Stories
Anton Chekhov, The Lady with the Dog and Other Stories, or Delphi Complete Works of Anton Chekhov ($2 on Kindle)
Francis King, The Man on the Rock (set in modern Greece, protagonist a consummate manipulator and opportunist), Man Booker finalist
Neel Mukherjee, The Lives of Others (how Islamic extremism takes hold inside a moderate Calcutta family), Man Booker finalist
David Mitchell – The Bone Clocks (a life and a mystery, lived in England and Ireland), Man Booker finalist
Rabih Alameddine – An Unnecessary Woman (a Beirut spinster translates books into Arabic that no one ever reads), National Book Award finalist
Philipp Meyer, The Son, Texas settlement and conflict, Pulitzer finalist
Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian, and The Border Trilogy
Charles Haverty (a writer, and reporter Natasha Haverty’s dad), had this to share with us on Facebook:
The Splendid Things We Planned, Blake Bailey’s “darkly funny account of growing up in the shadow of an erratic and increasingly dangerous brother, an exhilarating and sometimes harrowing story that culminates in one unforgettable Christmas.” Also: So We Read On, Maureen Corrigan’s terrific book all about The Great Gatsby; Updike by Adam Begley; and The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion by Meghan Daum. Two other recent reads (novels) that fall into the “Where Have You Been All My Life?” category: The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald and The Mountain Lion by Jean Stafford.
Sam Donato posted this to Facebook:
I love the book Endurance which is the account of Sir Ernest Shackleton and his crew trying to cross Antarctica in the early 1900′s. If you think this is cold, this will make the North Country seem warm! A great survival story.
Plus, all of these suggestions from our Facebook friends:
Frederick Kaselow — Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle
Ellen Beberman — Let Me Be Frank With You, by Richard Ford. And if you haven’t read Independence Day, read that one next.
Virginia Burnett — I am re-reading Tiffany Aching books by Terry Pratchett: The Wee Free Men, A Hat Full of Sky , The Wintersmith, and I Shall Wear Midnight. Not only are they excellent fun, they also contain some insightful social commentary that is particularly pertinent right now.
Sue Novak — I’m sure you don’t want to know about Communication and the Law, so how about Wild by Cheryl Strayed, and Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Half for some grins?
Bake This Cake — Searching for historic cake recipes in a lovely old recipe book, American Economical Housekeeper, 1845, (second edition) by Mrs. E. A Howland. Just delightful and so fun to read!
Rita Grinbergs — The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje (audio download from the library).
Diane Leifheit — The Night Circus by Eren Morgenstern. Magical, memorable, sparkly writing.
Amy DiStefano — Loved Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent . Also, Alexander McCall Smith’s The Number 1 Ladies a Detective Agency series is great.
Stephen Trinder – Urban Mass Transportation: A Dozen Years of Federal Policy by George M. Smerk.
Mary Sullivan Sager — The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt.
C.J. Rudy — Three Soldiers by John Dos Passos.
Ben Hamelin – Tibetan Peach Pie , Tom Robbins’ “True Account of an Imaginative Life.”
Rob Sprogell — Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.
Linda Garrett – The Unexpected Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce.
Louisa Burnham – Charity and Sylvia: A Same Sex Marriage in Early America by Rachel Hope Cleves.
Tom Kinslow — My Losing Season by Pat Conroy.
Marcia Clifton Robbins — The Firebird by Susanna Kearsley.
Colleen Pelletier – Blood Red by Mercedes Lackey. Excellent read. She takes fairy tales and gives them a whole new story and twist. This one is about Little Red Riding Hood.
Jennifer Chasalow VanBenschoten — Light on Life by Ivengar.
Les Tuttle — Currently, One Basket by Edna Ferber; before that, Home Country by Ernie Pyle (which I loved). Got ‘em both in the Salvation Army thrift store.
William Bruce Matthews — I am re-reading Promises to Keep by north country author Jamie Sheffield. Other titles by him: Here Be Monsters, Caretakers, The Weaving.
Elaine L. Lemieux — The Wisdom of Jesus and the Yoga Siddhas by Marshall Govindan.
Nancy Linge Currier — Absolute favorite holiday book: A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote. Read it every year.
Di Fineout — An Open Heart by the Dalai Lama.
Deirdre O’Callaghan — The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal
Jim Tracy — Sycamore Row by John Grisham.
Jule Beilein — A Good Marriage by Stephen King.
Wendy Purcell – Saving Simon by Jon Katz; The Wild Truth by Carine McCandless; and Off the Leash by Matthew Gilbert.
Love Resilience — The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street by Susan Jane Gilman. As a recent transplant from NYC, I really enjoyed blowing through this book. I highly recommend it.
Deanna Suciu Heermann — I just started The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer. Loved Calling Me Home by Julie Kibler, and thought Factory Man by Beth Macy was a good read as well.
Paula Di Bernardo — Walkable Westchester by Jane and Walt Daniels, and in the evenings, Catching Fire (book 2 in the Hunger Games Trilogy).
Laura Cordts — Currently reading Cooked by Michael Pollan. Recently zoomed through The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin.
Vera LaRoe — The Stone Wife by Peter Lovesey. Chaucer and mystery.
Susan Washburn — Just finished Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline. Favorites of this year: And The Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini, and The City of Falling Angels by John Berendt.
Kristin Rehder — Best book of essays I have read in a long time: Catherine Reid’s Falling into Place.
Arpad Gerster – The World We Create by Frances Beinecke, President of NRDC and a Long Laker. Also, The 100 Foot Journey by Richard C. Morais.
Peter Rowley — Lila by Marilynne Robinson and All the Light You Cannot See by Anthony Doerr.
Diane Blakey Minutilli — Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, National Book Award nominee.
Dick Donovan — For political junkies: On His Own Terms-A Life of Nelson Rockefeller. Richard Norton Smith has written a richly researched bio that is a great story about an energetic life. Most interesting to me is Rockefeller’s determination to work around his dyslexia. Rocky was a flawed and fascinating guy.
Wendy Gordon — Mansfield Park, for Austen completists.
Debbie Shonio Marshall — The Red Tent by Anita Diamant, before the miniseries begins.
Bob Maswick — My pick for non-fiction is Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv. Fiction? It’s been a long time since I found a really good book but Tod Goldberg’s Gangsterland gets my vote.
Susan Therio — I just told someone the other night to make sure they read The Dirty Life by Kristan Kimball. I love the story……. It’s not a new one, but it’s a GREAT one.
Danielle Edwards — Angora Alibi by Sally Goldenbaum . I love those knitting mysteries!
Barbara Strowger — Currently, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.
Bill Short — The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown. Non-fiction.
Shari Barnhart – City of Bones by Cassandra Clarke. First in a long series.
Ellen Brown — Heaven, Your Real Home by Joni Eareckson Tada.
Valerie Summer — My favorite book of the year: The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert. A great read heavy on nature and botany, strong female protagonist. The Orphan Train was wonderful, especially read aloud on the DVD.
Chris Bigelow — Too many books, so little time! These are some of the books I enjoyed this year:
Frog Music by Emma Donoghue, very different from Room, The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd, TransAtlantic by Colum McCann, The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud, Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin, and Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown. This is nonfiction and a true story of determination, trials, and endurance. I have not started Nora Webster by Colm Toibin. I have heard great thing about this book. Thanks again for having this program each year. I love to know what your listeners are reading.
Valerie Moody –
Here are my recommendations from this year:
Women with Altitude by Carol Stone White (stories of women winter 46ers)
Close Range, Wyoming Stories by Annie Proulx (one of my favorite collections to return to)
The Third Life of Grange Copeland by Alice Walker
Spirit of Steamboat by Craig Johnson (a feel-good Longmire holiday story)
* And for the horse friends we know:
The Eighty-Dollar Champion by Elizabeth Letts (great read, great gift!)
Barbara Phillip-Farley –
Best new book: Gutenberg’s Apprentice, by Alix Christie
Next-best new book: One Summer: America, 1927, by Bill Bryson
Most disappointing newer book: The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt
Best old book: Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy (trans. Magarshack)
Fine biography: Jack London: An American Life, by Earle Labor
Barrie Gilbert — In the Shadow of the Sabertooth: Global Warming, the Origins of the First Americans, and the Terrible Beasts of the Pleistocene, by Doug Peacock (Counterpunch) 2015
Kristin Rehder — Falling into Place by Catherine Reid; For All of Us, One Today: An Inaugural Poet’s Journey by Richard Blanco. An old favorite of mine is a book of photographs by Mary Randlett called Landscapes.
Paul Duffee — The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan (Winner of the Man Booker Prize).
Bridget –By far, the most thought provoking, well written book I read in 2014 was We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler. Also, The Homesmen by Glendon Swarthout – now a movie starring Hilary Swank and Tommy Lee Jones. Both are books that stay with you.