BELOVED BOOK LIST
The silver lining in the time of Corona and quarantine? Folks are talking about books and sharing their beloved titles. I’ve been asked by more than a few friends for suggestions, so it seemed like a good time to share a “short list” of some of my all-time favorite reads.
During this crazy, anxious time, many are worried about the survival of independent bookstores. After my April blog, book world icon and indie owner Roxanne Cody of R.J. Julia Booksellers (check out her book podcast) asked me to help spread the word on how to support America’s independent book stores. You can do this by using bookshop.org to order your books. I’ve included this link in each book image below to make it easy to order.
Thanks for supporting America’s small business independent bookstores. We all need to stick together more than ever.
This fast-paced thriller begins on a foggy night where a private plane from Martha’s Vineyard to New York crashes in the water. There are only two survivors, who will forever be connected. The fast-paced tale by the creator of the “Fargo” keeps your eyeballs glued to every page.
A masterful novel about the intersection of the lives of three friends making their own ways in New York City. Ten years out of college, each of the characters is facing different and unpredictable challenges in a post 9/11 world. The book contains insightful psychological observations about parents, children and the need for privacy and independence.
If I were trapped on an island with only a handful of books, this would be on the top of the list. A wonderfully aromatic slow-cooker story of friendship, love and the dings and dents of time, Stegner’s gorgeous prose makes this a timeless book that should be read and re-read. If you like this, don’t miss his Pulitzer Prize winning “Angle of Repose.”
In 1875, the covert and controversial “Brides for Indians program,” was intended to assimilate the Cheyenne Indians into the white man’s world. Through a series of fictional journals, the story depicts a colorful band of pioneer women as they travel across the American West and to the adventure of a lifetime.
In 1937 Greenwich Village, young Wall Street secretary Katey is about to collide with wealth, social standing and a world that was formerly barred to her. As choices are made, life’s disappointments come into sharper focus. One pivotal night changes everything and reveals the universal truths of regret and failure that lurk below the surface.
If you’ve ever loved a place and tried to imagine what it would be like to go back in time, you will love this classic and beloved novel. Toggling between the 1970s and 1882, the military has devised a secret project to try to send people back in time and edit history. The iconic Dakota apartment building is a key setting for the book and I’m one of many still waiting for the movie to be made.
Pick a book by Sittenfeld and I promise they just keep getting better. She has one coming out shortly that imagines Hillary Clinton if she never married Bill. I loved this re-imagining of Laura Bush’s life beginning as a girl and moving through time as she joins a prominent family and ultimately becomes first lady.
Desperate to survive the devastation of Nazi-occupied Paris in WW11 in France, a German boy and a blind girl’s paths collide in a seaside town. She and her father have a secret, something they have smuggled out of Paris to keep safe and this tale is shot through with goodness, illuminating the ways in which people try to help one another and search for goodness, against all odds.
Anything by Alice Hoffman is a home run, but I loved this novel set in1941, during humanity’s darkest hour, where three women must act with courage to fight back. Hoffman, the author of “Practical Magic,” infuses every book with a sprinkle of magic and fantastic and the mystical Jewish creature, a rare and unusual golem, offers a kind of protection. Paths cross and fortunes are linked. In a world where loss and evil are found at every turn, we see the triumph of never-ending love. I also loved her book “The Red Garden,” a series of interlocking stories set in the Berkshires.
Told from the perspective of a reclusive 29-year-old who has a secret (and famous) internet life, Charlotte comes from a wealthy, unconventional New England family. A wedding in the family brings things to a head as the siblings of this blended family are forced to grapple with the assets and liabilities – both material and psychological – left behind by their wonderfully flawed patriarch.
How do you pick just one Anna Quindlen novel? You read them all. One of her darker books ( I gravitate to dark in dark times) this is an unforgettable portrait of a family who collides with the violent consequences of what seem like inconsequential actions. When Mary Beth focused on one of her son’s depression, she is blindsided by a shocking act of violence. This is a book about facing the things we fear most, navigating a road we never intended to travel, and living a life we never dreamed we’d have to live, yet finding ourselves brave enough to try.
Farmer (and angry drunk) Larry Cook intends to turn over his 1,000-acre Iowa farm to his three daughters. When Caroline is less than enthusiastic, her cuts her out of the deal. Winner of the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Smiley captures the essence of life, family connections and angst with stark and painful detail in this modern rendition of King Lear.
When the Goodwins took over the last dairy farm in a small Midwestern town, they envisioned a self-made paradise. But the open-armed acceptance hasn’t quite worked out that way. One average morning starts like any other as the mother Alice watches her daughter and a friend play near the pond. When she steals a minute alone, something terrible happens. A seemingly trivial incident from Alice’s past resurfaces, taking on gigantic proportions and culminating in the family’s shattering downfall.
If you like your stories dark, this one’s for you. Sometimes a good, black tale reminds us “it could be worse” and I could not turn away from this gripping international bestseller about motherhood gone awry. Eva’s son Kevin is an “un-loveable boy,” compounded by the guilty fact that she never intended to be a mother. Two years after a horrific event, she tries to come to terms with marriage, career, family, parenthood and what Kevin’s horrific rampage in a series of startlingly direct correspondences with her estranged husband, Franklin. What if Eva’s disturbing dislike for her own son is what has driven him off the rails?
Joe planned a postcard-perfect afternoon in the English countryside to celebrate his lover’s return after 6 weeks in the States. The perfect day turns to nightmare however, when they are involved in freak ballooning accident in which a boy is saved but a man is killed. But fate has some things up its sleeve. The accident, and the people they encounter, will change the lives of the couple and the survivors,” filling them with an uneasy combination of shame, happiness, and endless self-reproach.
Based on the real-life story involving Arthur Conan Doyle, this book is set in the grand tapestry of late-Victorian Britain. As boys, George, the son of a Midlands vicar, and Arthur, living in shabby genteel Edinburgh, find themselves in a vast and complex world full of class identity and discrimination. Years later, both men become inextricably connected as one man struggles with his identity and the other, creator of the world’s most famous detective, is in love with a woman who is not his wife.
Jodi has a prolific ability to turn out character and plot-driven stories that capture and nail the gestalt of the moment. Jenna Metcalf’s mother was a scientist who studied grief among elephants. She mysteriously disappeared in the wake of a tragic accident and Jenna refuses to believe she was abandoned, pouring over the pages of Alice’s journals and searching online for clues. As Jenna’s memories begin to dovetail with the events in her mother’s journals, the story races to a mesmerizing finish.
As with so many of the authors on this list, you can’t go wrong with a Harlan Coben book. The man knows how to pack a punch and rivet you to the page. Every day, for the past eight years, Dr. David Beck has relived the horror of what happened. The gleaming lake, the piercing screams, the last night he saw his wife alive. When a cryptic message appears on his computer, he believes that somehow, Elizabeth is alive. The journey to discover the truth leads to the heart of a deadly secret. Someone intends to stop him before he gets there.
It’s 1981, and Sibyl Danforth has been a dedicated midwife in rural Vermont, for fifteen years. One treacherous winter night, in a house isolated by icy roads and failed telephone lines, Sibyl takes desperate measures to save a baby’s life, while the mother dies in labor. She performs an emergency Caesarean section, but Sibyl’s assistant later charges that the patient wasn’t already dead, and it was Sibyl who inadvertently killed her. Recounted by Sibyl’s fourteen-year-old daughter, the ensuing trial bears the earmarks of a witch hunt. As Sibyl faces the antagonism of the law, the hostility of traditional doctors, and her self-accusations, the book transfixes us as the best novels do. Don’t miss “The Flight Attendant,” as the current “Red Lotus” (which eerily mirrors the COVID pandemic.)
Who knew lobsters had a thriving sex life? This book is the upstairs/downstairs of the marine world, with an intimate portrait on land of a Maine island lobstering community and a band of renegade biologists. Beneath the ocean, the world of lobster behavior and danger-filled scuba dives in the churning currents of the Gulf of Maine reads like a novel.
Everything we learned about American history in school was through the perspective of the British, who wrested “New Amsterdam” from the Dutch in 1664. From that time on, the truth about the thriving, multi-cultural society began to morph into simple myths about an island purchased for $24 and a cartoonish peg-legged governor. When 12,000 pages of the Dutch colony’s ancient records were discovered and translated toward the end of the last century, they were deemed a national treasure. They represent an engrossing narrative that transforms our understanding of early America, and explains how New York became a multi-ethnic, cosmopolitan city, more tolerant than others in the 13 colonies.
With the intellectual curiosity and emotional wisdom that make his New York Times columns so popular, Brooks turns to the building blocks of how human’s interact, make decisions and operate using our animal back brains. Told through the fictional lives of one composite American couple, Brooks illustrates a fundamental new understanding of human nature grounded in the science of the human brain over the past thirty years. The unconscious mind, it turns out, is most of the mind—not a dark, vestigial place but a creative and enchanted one, where a chunk of the brain’s work gets done, including emotions, intuitions, biases, longings, genetic predispositions, personality traits, social norms and the realm where character is formed.
From its first documented appearances thousands of years ago, through the heroic 20th century battles to cure, control, and conquer the disease, this book is the “biography” of cancer. Physician, researcher, and award-winning science writer, Siddhartha Mukherjee examines cancer with a cellular biologist’s precision, a historian’s perspective, and a biographer’s passion. The result is a very readable and educational chronicle of a disease humans have lived with—and perished from—for more than five thousand years.
Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer, who worked the same land as her slave ancestors. Yet her cells—taken without her knowledge—became one of the most important tools in medicine and are still alive today, 60 years after her death. HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovering the secrets of cancer, viruses and radiation and led to advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping. Skloot’s extraordinary journey take us from the 1950’s “colored” ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital to stark white laboratories with freezers full of HeLa cells. Though the cells launched a multimillion-dollar industry, her family never saw any of the profits. This well-told story encompasses ten-years of journalistic research that captures the drama of scientific discovery as well as the human consequences.
Ever wonder what your kid is doing up in his room? If you guessed “creating the e-bay of drugs, guns, murder for hire and body parts,” well then, you’re gonna love this one. It’s the unbelievable (but true) story of a 26-year old libertarian programmer who built the billion-dollar online drug empire “Silk road” from his bedroom—and almost got away with it. This took years to research and the writing is great. I’m waiting for the movie.
Didion is a literary icon who needs no introduction. But this jewel of a book about soul crushing grief is mandatory reading for the human race. Only Didion could construct such stark and beautiful musings about marriage, loss, love, devotion and getting up off your knees after the un-thinkable. This book speaks to anyone who has ever loved a spouse or child.
From his rigorous tennis training as a child, to a 1980’s icon status as punk rock professional athlete, Agassi shares his private and personal struggles and victories, including his shocking 1992 Wimbledon win. He brings a brutal honesty to recounting his tennis matches and relationships, from his doomed marriage to Brooke Shields, to his present marriage with Stefanie Graff. You don’t have to love tennis to love this memoir.
My bar on the highest level of humor is someone who can make me laugh out loud with the written word. David Sedaris does it every darned time. He’s the Jerry Seinfeld of the book world (although his author readings are LOL funny) taking small, everyday moments in his essays and infusing them with an unmistakable running commentary on life. He lifts up the corner of the rug on seemingly routine events and finds the absurdity of life every time.
When Munson’s essay was published, The New York Times was so flooded with responses that they closed the comment feature. The essay became a book, where Munson skillfully shares the story of what happens when her husband of more than twenty years told her he wasn’t sure he loved her anymore. Laura’s response? I don’t buy it. The result is a poignant, wise, and often funny memoir. Check out her latest release “Willa’s Grove” for a little chicken soup for the sister soul.
*These are books I genuinely love and am thrilled to recommend to my friends. These are Bookshop.org affiliate links, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I get a small commission if you click through and make a purchase. Alternately, if you prefer to rent books at your local library or buy from your local bookstore, I very much support that!