My desk is littered with what from a distance might look like irregular paper snowflakes. They work their way into stacks of books, unfinished to-do lists, and other desk detritus. As you might imagine, they aren’t snowflakes. They’re book titles torn from magazine and newspaper reviews.
As an insomniac, I have plenty of time to read. A few nights ago I gave up trying to sleep a little before 2 am. I got up, snuggled in a blanket on the couch, and read until it was time to make coffee and start the day at six. That probably explains how I get through so many books in the average week.
I wouldn’t be able to support my reading habits if I bought most of what I read. Instead, I order them from one of civilizations best inventions, the library. I don’t know about you, but when I own a book it languishes because I’ve got all the time in the world to read it. Yet I’m motivated to zip through library books since they’re mine for only a few weeks.
Although I review books and read book reviews, I know reviews aren’t even close to a sure thing. (As my daughter says when I’m once again disappointed in a much-anticipated volume, “What have we learned about reviews?”) Instead, I’ve found that recommendations from friends are the best way to find the titles I’ll fall in love with next.
So, as a friendly gesture, I’m sharing some books I love in hopes that you will too.
State of Wonderby Ann Patchett takes us into the Amazon jungle where the competing aims of pharmaceutical researchers and indigenous people unfold in prose so vivid you can feel the humidity and hear the insects. This is a tale of lies, poison arrows, reluctant heroes, and strange miracles. The last few chapters offer an entirely satisfying conclusion without a trace of the cloying sentiment so common in lesser books.
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr has won many (richly deserved) awards including the Pulitzer. I read this book soon after it came out and actually grabbed people’s wrists as I implored them to read it. The main characters are a blind French girl and an orphaned German boy growing up as war irrevocably alters their destinies. Their stories swoop through the lives of many characters, even the minor ones so clearly rendered that they’re real as a person sitting next to you. There are few novels by any author as perfectly executed as this one.
The Signature of All Thingsby Elizabeth Gilbert is one of those rare books which manages to combine science and history into a captivating story. In it, a brilliant young woman defies her era’s conventions to pursue science, eventually leaving behind her quiet life to explore the larger world. The book manages to be cerebral and carnal, large in scope yet about the miniature cosmos of moss. Although there were a few pages that jangled off-key, it is an amazing book. I gave it as a gift to one friend along with terrarium I’d planted with mosses. (A trip to Tahiti would be just as relevant, but moss is a bit more affordable.)
Peace Like a River by Leif Enger is, I daresay, is as timeless a masterpiece as To Kill A Mockingbird. The plot seems ordinary enough: a family from rural Minnesota goes on a quest to save the eldest son who has escaped from jail during his trial for murder. The telling, however, illuminates the ordinary to gleaming transcendence. The fully drawn characters of Peace Like a River are people you want to invite to dinner so you can thank them for offering such sustenance. Enger makes every line worth savoring in this story of justice, faith, and enduring loyalty.
Euphoria by Lily King is very loosely based on episodes in the life of anthropologist Margaret Mead. I’ve been quietly obsessed with (and often appalled by) anthropology since discovering it was a thing back in high school. Euphoria has that and much more: revelation, rivalry, lust, despair, and a recognition that what we see says more about us than who we’re observing. Reading it, I was so immersed that I was surprised to look up and find I wasn’t climbing a ladder to a treehouse in the wilds of New Guinea.
The History of Love by Nicole Kraus is artful, complex, and beautifully written. There are books within this book, including a book written about a Polish girl named Alma and decades later, another Alma, named after a character in a Chilean book that her mother is translating. Kraus pulls together disparate strings including Holocaust survival, plagiarism, and a ten-year-old lamed vovnik — knotting them into a hauntingly lovely story about overcoming the greatest cruelty of all, loneliness.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel is a stark look at a world we take for granted — where small rectangles hold the power to connect us with people around the world, where metal cylinders transport passengers across the sky, where something magical called the Internet answers every question — although that world is gone in Station Eleven. After nearly all of humanity has been wiped out by a plague the future is a dangerous place, but we see it come alive through a troupe of artists who travel from settlement to settlement playing Beethoven and performing Shakespeare. Their motto is lifted from Star Trek: “Survival is insufficient.” This book brings that motto come alive.
Speak by Louisa Hall offers us five very different voices, each emerging from different times and places. They include a Alan Turing, a Puritan girl, and a doomed babybot. These characters act within ever-tightening strictures that, together, make up a larger pattern. Hall asks us to consider what it means to understand each other in this thought-provoking and entirely original novel.
Jewelweed by David Rhodes is a book of quiet insight told from many viewpoints—an ex-con, chronically ill child, wary young mother, minister, long-distance trucker, and others. Although it takes place in rural Wisconsin, the humble epiphanies Rhodes shares are relevant in any setting. At 464 pages this is a long novel, but you may find yourself wishing for a sequel. I do.
The Kin of Ata Are Waiting for You by Dorothy Bryant was written in 1971, yet it’s ever more necessary in our time. The novel centers on a successful yet desperate man who finds himself transported to an unknown place, one that seems primitive to him. He finds he’s landed in a kind of Eden where the inhabitants uphold and maintain the “real” world through their dreams. I was reminded of Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael as I read Bryant’s book, but Quinn’s book left me in despair while this one imparted a sense of delight and wonder.
Bel Canto (P.S.) by Ann Patchett. Yes, another Patchett book! Music forms the spine of this unlikely story. Wealthy international businessmen, a world-famous singer, and desperate terrorists move the storyline along with pacing that speeds up and slows down like the plot of an opera, coming to a sudden ending with nary a curtain call. Even if opera isn’t your thing, you may find yourself searching out pieces integral to the narrative. I suspect this novel, all on its own, created many new opera lovers.
Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives by David Eagleman. I’ve never encountered a book quite as imaginatively intelligent. Written by a neuroscientist, this intriguing volume offers wildly divergent speculative tales. Each is only a few pages, but Eagleman packs them with such fresh ideas that it’s best to read only one at a time in order to fully savor them. This book makes a great gift. I’ve given it to a teen, to a one of those people who have everything, and to someone who insisted he wasn’t much of a reader. They all adored it.
Okay, if my motive still isn’t apparent, I want you to tell me what fiction YOU are fawning over!