What are you reading now?


We had some nice suggestions the last time I asked this question, so I think I’ll just keep checking in with you every couple of months to find out what you’ve been reading, to let you know if there’s a book I liked, and to tell you about titles I hope to get to soon (“soon” being open to very loose interpretation).

I rarely read books when they’re first published. I leave that to my reading list call in co-hosts John Ernst and Chris Robinson. They are much more current than I am. (By the way, we’ll be doing our next edition of the show in early March when we’ll be asking you for suggestions for the Cabin Fever Reading List.)


So, right now, I’m in the middle of several books. Finally got around to David McCullough’s Truman (just cracked it open this week). I like reading books about people who are kind of left out of the historical spotlight. Truman, bookmarked between the larger-than-life-saved-us-from-the-Depression Roosevelt and the general-turned-President-saved-us-from-the-Nazis-and-communists Eisenhower, is nonetheless the President who was faced with some of the most important decision-making of the 20th century.



Jim Harrison

Jim Harrison, best known for Legends of the Fall, should be known for so much more. He’s one of my favorites. I just started a collection of three novellas, The Beast God Forgot to Invent.




Another favorite, Pat Barker, whose  Booker Prize-winning The Regeneration Trilogy about WWI I know I’ve recommended to you in the past. Thanks, I think, to Connie Meng, I’m reading her latest novel about WWI, Another World.




I spend a fair amount of time browsing through lists of recommendations from critics, bookstores, and various bibliophiles. I keep tabs on nominees for key awards and ideas from the Independent Booksellers. I want to refer you to an interesting list of favorites from the three regular NY Times reviewers, Michiko Kakutani, Janet Maslin and Dwight Garner. A few of their favorites show up on all the lists of recent “best books,” but many of their recommended titles are new to me and piqued my interest enough to put them on my “must read” list.

Kakutani got me with these two mini-reviews from the  list:

THE YELLOW BIRDS by Kevin Powers (Little, Brown & Company). The author of this beautifully observed first novel joined the Army when he was 17 and served as a machine-gunner in Iraq in 2004 and 2005. In chronicling the friendship of two young soldiers struggling to stay alive on the battlefield there he has written a deeply affecting book that conveys the horrors of combat with harrowing poetry. At once a freshly imagined bildungsroman and a metaphysical parable about the loss of innocence and the uses of memory, it’s a novel that will stand with Tim O’Brien’s enduring Vietnam book, “The Things They Carried,” as a classic of contemporary war fiction.

THE TWELVE TRIBES OF HATTIE by Ayana Mathis (Alfred A. Knopf). This extraordinarily powerful debut novel chronicles the many sorrows visited upon one Hattie Shepherd, a woman who left the Jim Crow South in the 1920s to start a new life in Philadelphia, and who at 16 lost her twin babies to pneumonia. That loss hardens Hattie’s heart, and she raises nine more children with stoic determination and not a whole lot of warmth — an emotional legacy that will shape the remainder of their lives. Writing with authority and psychological precision, Ms. Mathis endows Hattie’s life with an epic dimension — much as Toni Morrison has done with so many of her characters — while at the same time making her daily life thoroughly palpable and real.

And, Maslin with these:

TRUTH LIKE THE SUN by Jim Lynch (Alfred A. Knopf). Gimmick-free and uncategorizable, this is just a flat-out great read with the spirit of a propulsive, character-driven 1970s movie. Drawing on the history of the 1962 World’s Fair and its Space Needle, Mr. Lynch pairs unlikely antagonists: an old-school political fixer blessed with immense charm, and an overeager newspaperwoman whose research, done in 2001, has the power to destroy him. They never behave predictably, and their showdown lingers long after Mr. Lynch’s story is over.

BILLY LYNN’S LONG HALFTIME WALK by Ben Fountain (Ecco). Mr. Fountain found inspiration for this debut novel in a surreal spectacle he witnessed on television. At a Dallas Cowboys’ Thanksgiving game in 2004, a group of soldiers found themselves celebrated as heroes of the war in Iraq, though real wartime experience has nothing to do with the notions of manhood and victory that are part of football hoopla. Billy Lynn, the book’s wide-eyed main character, finds himself shellshocked by sights he would never see on a battlefield. Mr. Fountain devastatingly juxtaposes the complacency of America’s home game with the reality facing troops headed back to war.

THE ONE: THE LIFE AND MUSIC OF JAMES BROWN by R J Smith (Gotham Books). This James Brown biography is as showstopping as the screaming, moaning, kinetically blessed performer it describes, capturing both the toughness of Brown and the racially polarized America in which he fought to become a crossover star.

Garner’s picks just didn’t grab me.

I promise to let you know which of these turns out to be a real favorite…but don’t hold your breath, it could take me months (years?) to get to them.

Okay, your turn: what are you reading and loving–or hating? (Stick around, John Ernst promises me he’ll send me a list of critics’ favorites he hated.)


  1. Just finished reading Rebecca Skloot’s “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” on the cautious recommendation (a new book club at her place of employment: Sea Grant at College of the Atlantic, Bar Harbor, Me.)by my naturalist, daughter-in-law, Natalie.
    She, as I, do not depend on best sellers lists for book suggestions and I’ve seen this one on the book store shelf for some time so I was pleasantly surprised when I found the book interesting, curious, entertaining and somewhat tragic. Certainly gives one pause. I wonder where all my extracted ‘bits and pieces’ might be?
    Currently reading Willa Cather’s “One of Our Own” on the recommendation of Elia Filippi.
    Seems as if I’m stuck in the early 1900’s…but I must say Cather definitely has writing limitations but the story (so far, I’m about 1/3 of the way through this one)is engaging.
    Last week I read a charming little book, The Hedgehog’s Dilemma, a Tale of Obsession, Nostalgia, and the World’s Most Charming Mammal” by British author, Hugh Warwick.
    I, too, read “Yellow Birds”. An incredibly well-written book about a very difficult subject.
    I often read mysteries (as a television substitute, perhaps)and am particularly fond of those set in ‘cold’ places such as Iceland, Norway, Sweeden, Russia, China…something about the darkness and grimness appeals to me.
    I chose an Australian author, Garry Disher recently and was pleasantly surprised with his Inspector Hal Challis series. Not as dark as the aforementioned mysteries yet appealing to me, I know not why.

  2. Based on a number of very favorable reviews(including one cited on this site), I read Yellow Birds. It is a significant contribution to the literature of war and its impact on combatants and the attempt to re enter civil society. It is fine novel but expremely troubling, a far cry from a ‘fun’ read. Aside from its clear literary merits, it is an important book at a time when the military and ‘warriors’ are routinely glorified. It is a reminder that those we send off to war are a cross section of much (not enough) Americana and are capable of terrible acts and often subject to the effects repeated acts of violence. It is a reminder that yellow ribbons are no substitute for putting pressure on our elected officials to ensure that war is a last resort that is full of consequences never intended.

  3. Laura Rediehs says:

    I’m reading Sweet Fruit from the Bitter Tree: 61 Stories of Creative and Compassionate Ways out of Conflict, by Mark Andreas. I really believe that we need to feed our minds and imaginations with stories like these: how to respond to conflict and danger nonviolently. These stories are remarkable, and true.

    U.S. popular culture glorifies violence, but in real life, violence causes many more problems than it actually solves. It only “wins” 50% of the time, at best — but even those “wins” come at tragic cost. Nonviolence offers genuine win-win possibilities. The stories in this book illustrate this: not only do the almost-victims end up surviving, the almost-criminals too are spared from doing terrible things they likely would later regret and suffer from.

    We all need to be sharing stories like these more often, as an antidote to the propaganda of violence.

  4. Just finished American Sniper, At the same time working through Undaunted Courage, listened to Hunger Games unabridged and A Year of Living Biblically last week- road trip. Presently listening to Audacity of Hope,next Life of Paul. Also started reading Hiking Through:One Man’s Journey to Peace and Freedom on the Appalachian Trail.

  5. The Attack by Khadra is a fabulous ‘small’ novel about Israeli/Palestinian relationships that I recently finished. The main character is an Arab doctor in an Israeli hospital who appears to be accepted as a peer/professional by his Jewish colleagues until there is a terrorist act that implicates him. What follows is a drama that underlines the complexity of Arab/Israeli tensions. Like all good fiction, it provides a perspective that history and journalism cannot. The work is not a polemic or an unbalanced account and is a must read for those truly interested in topic.

  6. I just finished Narcopolis: A Novel by Jeet Thayil, and Bonsai: A Novel, by Alejandro Zambra. They were both definitely worth reading (but neither is plot driven). Narcopolis is essentially a descriptive historical novel about the narcotics underworld of Bombay. It follows (sort of) the lives of a number of people living on a slum street in Bombay, most of whom are involved in the opium trade and later the heroin trade. Most are involved as addicts also.

    Bonsai is a short novel by a Chilean poet writing his first novel. It won awards in Chile. It is about two young Chileans whose lives dont turn out well. They are the equivalent of English majors who fall in love and read to each other in bed as an erotic exercise. Early in their relationship they both falsely claim to have read Proust, and then later “reread” Remembrance of things past to each other (Among the many other books they read in bed). The young woman has a best friend who is also a character. You know from the beginning that things go downhill for them.

    • Ellen Rocco says:

      So, Peter, I’m curious: how to read these two books? Were they recommended by a friend or a reviewer? Did you just see them in a bookstore or library and open them on a whim? (I never underestimate the power of a book cover, in spite of the old adage about not judging the book this way.)

      Your two suggestions are both interesting and off the common lists, so I wondered how you came upon them.

      • Ellen Rocco says:

        Oops, correction: I meant to ask ‘how you CAME to read’ the titles you suggested…

        • Ellen – I suspect you arent a Kindle fan, but one of the good things about them is that when you find a book you enjoyed, you can see what other books people who bought that one also bought. Then you can see the covers and the reviews, and download a bunch of first chapters. Im not sure where this vein started.

          • Ellen Rocco says:

            Yes, you’re right. I don’t use a kindle and I don’t buy books generally on Amazon (which also does recommendations…though I do check out related music recommendations when I buy music through Amazon). So, the follow up question: do you find a lot of worthwhile recommendations through kindle?

          • “So, the follow up question: do you find a lot of worthwhile recommendations through kindle?” simple answer is yes, although you can get the same information on Amazon without buying the book through them, and then buy the books through your local bookstore. But you would probably have to order the book anyway.

            I start with probably the same information you do – various peoples (reviewers) best of the year, or prize short lists like the Booker Mann prize (Narcopolis was on that list), and then follow the threads of related books.