Fiction Worth Fawning Over

fiction worth reading

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.

 

 

aAll 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 the 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.)

 

aPeace 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 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 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!

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23 thoughts on “Fiction Worth Fawning Over

  1. Wonderful reviews. I will read everyone of them. I am a beginning writer and my daughter and I wrote a memoir entitled: GRACE FOR GYPSY GIRLS BY ANN AND RONNANN NAEDELE.. I ALSO HAVE SOME SHORT FICTION MYSTERIES SET IN 1960’S IN EAST TENNESSEE (COLLEGE TOWN).

    Liked by 1 person

  2. As always, I take your recommendations with great glee. I have read several of these, and I could not describe them as well as you. Thanks for a new list to journey through.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for the great list!! I love hearing real reviews and when you said you actually grabbed someone wrists imploring them to read that book, I knew I had to go order it from the library. I can’t really recommend anything too exciting as my brain is still on baby mode (number 5) and I’m a little worried it’s not coming back. 😉

    I just recently re-read the whole Josephine B Triology written by Sandra Gulland (love them) and right now I’m plowing through some easy reading humor books…the Stephanie Plum books by Janet Evanowich. My husband can’t believe I laugh out loud at them but for some reason the picture she paints in my head just get me going. Once again, thank you for the list. From, Alison Horsley

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    • Congratulations on that new baby! It’s hard to imagine you have a moment to read. When mine were tiny I sometimes propped a book on the stroller handlebars during our daily walk or sat in the yard as they played, lifting my eyeballs to check on them each time I turned a page. Once they were big enough to play in the tub at bathtime I’d sit on the floor near them and let them play for a half hour or more so I could catch up with a book. Ah, the desperate measures a book addict will take…

      I haven’t read either series you mentioned. Thanks, I”ll look them up. My current escapist books are the Bruno, Chief of Police mystery series by Martin Walker. I particularly like them as a glimpse into life in the French countryside.

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  4. Great subject…..your reading list….to fawn over….You and I match on Doerr, Patchett, Gilbert, Bel Canto…….and I add for fawning: Maya’s Notebook by Isabel Allende….Barbarian Days by William Finnegan ( I have a surfer son who is currently chasing waves in Puerto Rico} I enjoyed knowing more about the mind, science and spirituality of a surfer. The memoir was a mesmerizing ​surprise for me. The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit…….Goldfinch……..I plan to pursue some of your other reads. I deeply appreciate your website……keeping me company on this wet and rainy night……Nina Tepedino

    * http://elderwrites.blogspot.com/ *

    *Just released: WOMAN WANDERING 1975-2015 COLLECTION OF POEMS * *Available on Amazon.com *

    *Author of: “IF YOU LIVED IN SAM’S NECK” with photographs and verse* *for children and their families, available on Amazon.com*

    *Also, find me on LINKEDIN……..FACEBOOK………..GOOGLE+*

    *Watch and hear me read my book: If You Lived in Sam’s Neck on YouTube*

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    • I too adore Isabel Allende’s books. I read Maya’s Notebook last year. It didn’t compare to her earlier works (like the masterful House of Spirits) but it was a good read. I just picked up her new book The Japanese Lover from the library. And Rebecca Solnit’s books are amazing.

      I’m not familiar with Barbarian Days. I interviewed a teen (back when I was writing my first book) who fully lived in the universe of surfing, finding meaning and education through surfing. Really interesting. And right now, next to me in a stack of books sent to me for possible review, is Just Add Water: A Surfing Savant’s Journey with Asperger’s by Clay Marzo and Robert Yehling.

      Congratulations on your just-released poetry collection!

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  5. Being a person who enjoys books, lists and blogs, this is my kind of post. 🙂
    The public library was a very important part of my childhood and helped nurture my love of reading and books. But once I went into the “working world” I gradually gave up the library in favor of bookstores. Just a few days ago I discovered a hardback novel I bought at Barnes and Noble 8 years ago for about $25. Just crazy in hindsight. Now I’ve rediscovered my love of libraries and I’m glad to have done so!

    I read mostly nonfiction so I don’t have any great novel suggestions to share. I did read bel canto many years ago. I have an autographed copy that I got from Square Books in Oxford MS. I didn’t like it much but remember thinking it would probably be a movie someday.

    One novel I’ve returned to several times is Fight Club by Chuck Palaniuk. It’s violent and strange, but makes interesting observations about the human condition in this age.

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  6. Out of all these books I have only read Station Eleven so far – in fact I have read it twice because I enjoyed it so much. At our library now if you order a book you have to pay a fee – which rather defeats what a library is all about.

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  7. Bill, I actually read more non-fiction than fiction too. I think I’m easily disappointed by fiction, expecting to be transported and disappointed when I’m not.

    Years ago, staying at someone’s house, I ran across the Chuck Palaniuk book “Choke.” Really well written, really graphic, very memorable. I’ve got his book “Lullaby” on my to-read list.

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  8. Hi! I just stumbled upon your blog today and I’m so glad I did! I echo someone who commented before me – this is my kind of a post, too 🙂 I also rarely read fiction, so I appreciate the suggestions and summaries. This year I read a few fiction books… I think At the Waters Edge and Water for Elephants by Sarah Gruen were my favorite novels. You might also want to check out “Love and Loyalty on the Loire” – it’s a novella (self-published, only available as an e-book and only on Amazon), so short (and inexpensive). It was written by a good friend of mine and I really do find it to be wonderfully written and meaningful.

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  9. I realize my reply is late. I read Jewelweed recently thanks to your recommendation, and wanted to return the favor. May I suggest The Festival of Insignificance by Milan Kundera. It is a short novel occurring in modern Europe with touches of history and philosophy. After reading Kundera by happy chance, I now wish all of his novels were translated into English.

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