East of Eden, by John Steinbeck

Steinbeck considered this his best work, which is reason enough to read it – but if you’ve seen the movie and think you know the story, READ THE BOOK. I am as big a James Dean fan as anyone and the movie is great, but the book is SO MUCH MORE. It contains the whole world in one volume – lengthy, but as page-turning as any cheesy beach read, and it will stay with you far longer. “Timshel!”  is the key to everything.  Everything.

The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, by Reif Larson

This is one of my favorite books of recent years, a novel featuring a young boy who maps everything, from facial expressions to physical terrain to details of plants and animals. The layout of the book is mesmerizing, with T.S.’s maps and notes illuminating the margins and providing a sort of inner story to accompany the main text. And, Spivet’s maps mirror the wisdom of Edward Tufte almost exactly!

Let the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann

This novel won the National Book Award, deservedly so!  It is set in NY, set around the time that the man walked between the Towers on a tightrope – its storylines draw you in and intersect in unexpected ways, sort of like Raymond Carver short stories. If you read this, I also recommend watching ‘Man on Wire’, the film about the tightrope feat - so daring and yet, in retrospect, so innocent.

The Nick Adams Stories, by Ernest Hemmingway

It is not fair to put Hemmingway right next to Franzen, I admit it – but, here we have bleak done right! These stories have energy and movement and life in them, even at their darkest moments. I’d never read them all collected together before, and it is really fun to follow Nick through these stories, which were written over a very extended period of time. Best read beside a roaring fire as a blizzard rages outside, or on a cushion of pine needles in the middle of the woods.

Dear Life, by Alice Munro

I love short stories, especially during hectic times of the year – they are like mini-vacations to me, and Alice Munro’s are always excellent. Weeks, months, years later you will find them popping to mind, and you will think, that was real…right? They stick with you – read them.

Brooklyn, by Colm Toibin

This novel tells the story of a young woman who travels from Ireland to America around the turn of the century to find work – in other words, she could have been any one of my own relatives. Setting aside this personal interest, the story is a wonderful snapshot of many immigrant experiences – torn between the old and new, both in a tangible personal way and in a more complex social way.

Library of Souls, by Ransom Riggs

This is the third and final installment in the Miss Peregrine series by Riggs. It’s like Harry Potter meets the Land of Misfit Toys (coming from me, this is a compliment). If I had a pre-teen in my life, we’d read this together.

The Neopolitan Series, by Elena Ferrante

Ferrante’s series has kept me company through much of the last year, as I worked my way through all four of her books. Like any good fiction, it got to the point where the characters were as familiar as actual people in my own life. I’d find myself walking along the river wondering, how is Lenu doing? And then, happily, realized I could just go home and turn the page to find out. If you have ever had a long-lasting, complicated relationship – to a person, to a place, to an idea – you will appreciate these books.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery

I put I put "Olive" and "Hedgehog" together because they both feature ladies of a certain age who appear crusty and unfriendly and detached from the world, but who have a much more interesting story beneath that first layer, and their relations in and to the world are more interesting still. Though I found the writing and story in Hedgehog more impactful (it is the best novel I’ve read all year), both tales are a good reminder that while “every person is fighting her own battle”, every person also carries her own kindness and joys.

Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout

I put "Olive" and "Hedgehog" together because they both feature ladies of a certain age who appear crusty and unfriendly and detached from the world, but who have a much more interesting story beneath that first layer, and their relations in and to the world are more interesting still. Though I found the writing and story in Hedgehog more impactful, both tales are a good reminder that while “every person is fighting her own battle”, every person also carries her own kindness and joys. Also see the terrific Olive Kitteridge series with Frances McDormand in the lead role.

My Name is Lucy Barton, by Elizabeth Strout

Strout is a writer of quiet stories that stick, like her own Olive Kittridge, somewhat similar to Barbara Pym or Kent Haruf. The setting is a hospital where Lucy is in the midst of a long recovery, and the writing conveys that sort of reflective, stream of consciousness, time-standing-still quality, where the past and present are both compressed and looped together. Lucy’s childhood was not very good, and some of her reflections are somber, but that’s exactly the reason that, by the end, I felt like we were great friends, as if she’d shared such confidences with me and me alone.

Anything Is Possible, by Elizabeth Strout

This trio (Olive Kitteridge, Lucy Barton, Anything is Possible) is infused with Strout’s signature style – a mix of beautiful prose, quirky detail, plus a current of sadness that somehow does not lead to despair, because it’s just so real, and paired with a similarly deep, un-showy, matter-of-fact love.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle; The Lacuna; The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver

This trio of books by Barbara Kingsolver includes new and old, fiction and nonfiction, all worth reading. Animal Vegetable Mineral details her family’s adventure in local eating over the course of a full year – which doesn’t seem like long until you consider the length of winters in New England.  It is more entertaining and better-written than many books of this sort, which can veer to the “well-intentioned but way too preachy” category pretty quickly.  The Lacuna is her newest novel – I am only partway through it, but it is starting to paint a captivating and sweeping tale, which causes her earlier work, The Poisonwood Bible, one of the greatest novels ever, to hover in the back of my mind as I read.

Anthill, by E.O. Wilson

Just to prove that he really means it about hopping over traditional boundaries, Wilson has just published his first novel!  I have only read the excerpt in the New Yorker so far, but the very idea of such a well-regarded scientist writing a novel – about ants, no less, fills me with delight.

Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston

"If you read this when you were very young, you might remember the plot as I did: bad guy, bad guy, good guy, rabid dog. Well... not exactly. For one thing. the bad guys aren’t so bad, they are just limited, or maybe mis- matched, in all the ways that all of us humans are. And the good guy, that’s not so straightforward as I recalled either. What has not changed since my teenaged reading is the sense of self and truth I get when reading Janie’s story – that, plus the sense of sheer beauty in Hurston’s writing that sometimes hits you with a big thud. “She stood there until something fell of the shelf inside her.” Or, “she starched and ironed her face, forming it into just what people wanted to see”. Thunk. Right in the heart. The edition I just read (UK printing) also included a foreword by Zadie Smith, extremely thought provoking and helpful at cutting through some of the clutter of commentary that surrounds an iconic story like this one."

The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert

We highlighted this terrific novel on last year’s summer reading list, but it fits right in with this evolutionary mini-library. Here’s what we said then, all still true: If there is an explorer in your life (or your inner life), this novel will be of interest. The Signature of All Things spans a great arc from Captain Cook to Charles Darwin, and shows how it can be the slower, careful pathways that ultimately lead to the most dramatic breakthroughs – in science and in life.

Sum, by David Eagleman

This is the tiniest book around, easily portable for picnicking, hiking, or a day at the beach. I picked it up at this year’s TED conference, where Eagleman gave a super-cool talk about developing new senses (http://go.ted.com/bGRc). The talk was stunning, and yet I was left wondering whether such technical genius was really appreciative of the depth and potential of our plain old senses, the ones that come pre-loaded in most of our human bodies. This little book gives the answer, sketching 40 tiny tales of afterlives, each one more curious and thought-provoking than the last. I recommend sharing this book with a loved one, as it’s bound to spark the sort of twisting looping late-into-summer-evening conversation that is so rare, and so precious.

Honeydew: Stories, by Edith Pearlman

I’m not sure how I missed out on Edith Pearlman for so long – she lives just a T-ride away in Brookline, and writes luminous short stories, the reading of which is perhaps my favorite summertime occupation. It’s an added bonus that in this case I can try to guess how Brookline streets and establishments correspond to their fictional counterparts. Often I like sharp stories, and often I like nuanced stories, but it’s rare to find both qualities in one place. Here these two qualities happily cohabitate. She said no. He wrote Yes; and shipped the etchings; and boarded a plane. Woah.

Reasons For and Advantages of Breathing, by Lydia Peelle

These stories are beautiful and heartbreaking, yet somehow hopeful. You will rush through them in an effort to get to the next beautiful phrase, like a literary bag of chips – but unlike the chips, when you finish, you will want to start all over again.

The State We're In: Maine Stories, by Annie Beattie

I love Anne Beattie, and there is something about short stories that is especially tuned to summer (see the notes for Sum and Honeydew, above). This collection links together and I expect it will form something novel-esque when taken in its entirety. Plus, I love reading something “in place” – Austen when in England, Tolstoy when traveling to Moscow, Adichie en route to West Africa.... Beattie during summer in New England. Side note: speaking of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author of Americanah and Half of a Yellow Sun (both of which also will be on one of our book lists), check out her widely acclaimed Commencement address to the Wellesley class of 2015. The last 5 minutes of “big sister” advice are essential for every woman, parent of daughters, human being. “Please do not twist yourself into shapes to please others...each moment we pretend to be what we are not is wasting our time.” http://www.wellesley.edu/events/commencement/archives/2015/commencementaddress

Dune, by Frank Herbert

I first was assigned Dune in a high school English class, where we did a module on science fiction. I remember liking that this story was more about human nature than crazy technological inventions, and I also remember being pretty confused by intricate plot points. It’s going to be fun to reconnect with Dune. As an investment – of both time and money - Dune’s publication was a risky venture for all concerned. Both Herbert and his publisher were “all in”, and the publisher was nervous. But here’s what Herbert has to say about that: A man is a fool not to put everything he has, at any given moment, into what he is creating. You're there now doing the thing on paper. You're not killing the goose, you're just producing an egg. So I don't worry about inspiration, or anything like that. It's a matter of just sitting down and working.

The Moviegoer, by Walker Percy

This is the 100th anniversary of Walker Percy’s birth – what better time to re-read The Moviegoer? Turns out this is the favorite book of not one but two of my dearest friends, and like all good stories, it reveals more each time ‘round. On this turn I noticed, “he is no more aware of the mystery which surrounds him than a fish is aware of the water it swims in” – which of course brought to mind This is Water by the great David Foster Wallace. A seemingly quick read, but with layer after layer to explore.

Thirteen Ways of Looking, by Colu McCann

McCann is somehow able to write about sorrow in a way that is beautiful and even hopeful (of course I credit this to his Irishness). This collection of a novella and three short stories has echoes of the beautiful prose and New York settings of Let The Great World Spin – reading this latest work is like reconnecting with an old friend, where you have the combination of shared history and new, yet-to-be-told stories.

Fates & Furies, by Lauren Groff

We all have a few “book friends”, people whose reading recommendations we trust implicitly. Not one, not two, but three of my dearest book friends have urged me to read this novel, and they aren’t alone, as it’s also a National Book Award finalist. So, this one is first on my list for holiday break.

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu, by Joshua Hammer

I’ll admit it; I grabbed this book for the title alone, thinking it was a novel about secret superhero librarians who performed extraordinary feats. Turns out, it’s even better: it’s real! Here we have the story of Abdel Kader Haidara, archivist from Tibuktu, who spent years tracking down ancient texts and assembling a splendid library, only to see all of that work and all of those precious texts threatened by Al Queda. Haidara then leads the effort to sneak 350,000 volumes out of the city to safer spots in southern Mali. I’ve only just begun this book, but what a glorious story, and what a wonderful reminder of the many forms that heroes can take – especially in real life.

Vinegar Girl, by Anne Tyler

I’m a big fan of Anne Tyler and a big fan of Taming of the Shrew, so this was an obvious pick for me: it’s part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series, where modern authors riff on Shakespearean plays. This is a dangerous premise of course, mixing favorites – I like salsa and I like chocolate, but that does not mean chocolate salsa is a great idea. It’s true, the original Shakespeare and the original Tyler are each better than this mash-up. However, Tyler’s light and charming writing had me breezing through this book, and it had the same fun experimental feeling as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. (Note: if you prefer a 100% Tyler book, last year’s Spool of Blue Thread is absolutely terrific. If you are looking for other Shrew remakes, the movie 10 Things I Hate About You is my all-time favorite.).

Goodnight, Beautiful Women, by Anna Noyes

Short stories are one of the great joys of summer – you can dive right in, and if the urge for a walk on the beach or a nap in the hammock kicks in, there’s a handy stopping place just a few pages away. Anna Noyes’ collection pulled me right in, especially as it’s set in DownEast Maine, a place for which I have great affection. These are not sweet breezy tales, though. Each has a bit – or more than a bit - of life’s tougher side, a heartbreaking undercurrent. Beautiful indeed.

The Metamorphosis, by Franz Kafka

Can you believe this book is 100 years old? 101, to be exact. It’s hard to say anything of value regarding such a classic, so I’ll just note that this time through I focused on the relationship of Gregor and his sister Grete, which revealed some different observations and questions than I’d ever had before. If you are going to watch a TV show tonight, consider reading this instead – it’s less than 50 pages, and much more gripping than a CSI re-run. (Note: to continue the mash-up theme, listen to the Kafka-inspired Samsa & Seuss by the extraordinary David Rakoff.)

The Vegetarian, by Han Kang

I’m pairing my revisit of The Metamorphosis with a newer novel, The Vegetarian (big thanks to Bilal Hafeez for this idea). Mesmerizing and creepy, author Han Kang reminds me a little of Kafka, a little of Haruki Murakami. The first third of the novel (it’s told in 3 parts) is by far the most compelling, but it’s the end of the story that highlights how fragile we all are. I’m not sure this is the most well-crafted book I’ll read this year, but it might be the most haunting.

Mister Monkey, by Francine Prose

I am a sucker for books that gradually unveil a story through the points of view of different characters, from Raymond Carver’s Short Cuts to the Spoon River Anthology. For days after reading stories like this, I look around me in a different way, more curious, and more connected. Mister Monkey is a quirky addition to this genre, centering on the production of a children’s play in New York. Absurd, humdrum, bittersweet – by the end, you realize, it’s pretty true to life.

How to Set a Fire and Why, by Jesse Ball

A number of reviews compare this book to Catcher in the Rye and it’s true, if Holden Caulfield were a modern girl, this might be his story. With every page, a little more complexity is revealed, so that as a reader, your earlier assumptions are constantly being revised and refined, demanding that you remain curious and non- judgmental. This sort of open-minded requirement is one of the most wonderful things an author can compel, and I like that the book demanded something of me beyond simple enjoyment of the captivating narrative. I picked this book up after reading an intriguing note from Jesse Ball’s editor, who reported that the author thinks for several weeks, not even picking up a pen. “Then he spools it out on the page, calls me up and says, ‘I’m finished, and I think you’ll like it.’” I do indeed like it, and I think you will too.

Well-Read Women, by Samantha Hahn

Hehn combines gorgeous portraits of some of the most well-known women in literature with a single quote from each. Taken individually, they are interesting and entertaining. Taken as a composite, they are unforgettable, and heartbreaking. This would be a wonderful gift for a friend who already has “all the books”. Coincidentally, I read this alongside Women in Science, and the combination was wonderful.

Valley of the Dolls, by Jacqueline Susann

When the fascinating and fierce Patty Duke passed away earlier this year AND the book celebrated its 50th anniversary, the press coverage made me realize I’d seen this movie, but never read the book. Suspend your judgment! I am telling you, this book is GOOD, full of subtleties that do not come through in the screen version. The stories of each character – both women and men – are more familiar than you might realize (or more than you might wish), and will make you intensely grateful for whatever love and support and health exist in your own life.

The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins

I first saw this book being read by, you guessed it, a girl on a train. After seeing it everywhere these past few months, I finally dove in... and resurfaced a day later, since I could not put it down until I was done. This is perfect beach reading, fast, interesting, and energetic (if a little dark). The plot twists like a corkscrew! (Ping me if you caught that reference).

I'm Thinking of Ending Things, by Iain Reid

Woah, this book goes fast – I read it in one big whoosh, and it’s hard to imagine putting it down. It’s got a choppy and quirky prose style that speeds things up and adds to the bad-dream, confused kind of feeling that I had as a reader (in a good way). For some folks the story is incomprehensible and for others it’s far too obvious – for me it was just right, eerie and interesting, not full-out terrifying or mystifying. I do wonder if it would be even better as a short(er) story, but I liked the creepy loop-de-loop of the book and for me the quirky prose was a welcome and additive element.

Manhattan Beach, by Jennifer Egan

It’s such a treat to find a writer whose books are consistently outstanding, even as their content varies dramatically. Manhattan Beach is nothing like A Visit from the Goon Squad, yet both shine forth as favorites. This latest features a young Irish woman working at the Brooklyn shipyards during WWII, so even if I didn’t love Egan it would be required reading in my family. It is a huge compliment to Egan that her description of mid-century Brooklyn sounds just the stories I heard around the Thanksgiving table as a little kid.

Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng

Ng somehow pulls you in to reflect deeply on the nature of family and community, of social norms and divisions, while all along you think you’re just enjoying a terrific novel.

The One Inside, by Sam Shepard

Part fiction, part autobiography, often confusing, a little disturbing, and thoroughly compelling… this book will stick with you, its loop-de-loop narrative gradually forming a knotted-together whole. Shepard often worked at the Santa Fe Institute, and I liked to imagine these words echoing through the building there as he typed away. As it turns out, this was also Shepard’s last published work, and there can be no more vivid example than this of what was lost in his passing. I listened to the audiobook version read by Bill Pullman, which added immeasurably to the experience.

Turtles All the Way Down, by John Green

I think this is supposed to be a Young Adult book, but you know, aren’t we all young at heart? As you’ll know if you read (or watched) The Fault in Our Stars, Green has an uncanny ability to reflect the inner – and outer – dialogue of teens, such that even though I can’t describe the story without it seeming saccharine or silly, somehow when you’re reading it, it just rolls right along in a wonderful way. In this sense, it is completely true to life.

The Inheritance of Loss, by Kiran Desai

These were the books I took with me to India earlier in the year, and I was reminded anew of their splendor. If you are looking to visit old book-friends this season, these are two of the best.

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk, by Kathleen Rooney

If you are the type who loves the crazy circus like feeling that everyday life can have, this book will delight you. Rooney’s story is based on a real life pioneer in 1930’s advertising, Macy’s Margaret Fishback, and it is clever and witty and – as all truly clever things are – a little bit wise as well. This is the most enjoyable book I have read all year.

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