Low-tech gifts may not be in fashion, but the gift of a book opens the gate to another world and allows the most amazing interactive computer of all history—our brains—to enter other worlds, live other lives, and enrich our knowledge of the universe. Through books we can fly far beyond our daily concerns, solve crimes, fall in love, be an adventurer, gain greater understanding of ourselves and others. Books are gifts that require no batteries, have no plastic parts to break off or malfunction, and they remain ever-ready to tell us stories again and again.
Throughout each year, FEAST online magazine suggests books for your enjoyment and we strive to remind you of gems that have fallen from the headlines in a rapidly moving publishing world. We hope you’ll buy books for family, friends, AND yourself this holiday season.
Here are a few of our favorites in FICTION for 2009. Check back next week for our recommendations in nonfiction. If you have others to recommend, please leave us a comment!
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, David Wroblewski. HarperCollins 2008. A unique book by an incredible writer, it’s monumental in length at 561 pages and is not a book you race through for story only—it’s stories within stories, each to be savored, if for no other reason than the writing, the descriptive prose, the deft handling of words. Edgar Sawtelle is mute from birth and grows up on a remote farm, an only child, using a personal sign language to communicate with his parents. The Sawtelle’s raise dogs and over generations have created a breed of superior intelligence, temperament, and training. What happens when Edgar’s father dies suddenly under mysterious circumstances and a domino fall of events, including a disliked uncle offering his mother comfort as she grieves, leads Edgar to run away from home with three of his pups trailing behind. The depth of discussion about the dogs, their training, the North Country landscape, and the exploration of love, grief, and loneliness will stay with you long after the last page.
Goldengrove, Francine Prose. HarperCollins 2008. Goldengrove is a finely written literary tale about a young girl who loses her closest and dearest friend—her sister—and what the unthinkable does to her and her family. It’s a story of becoming unmoored, of drifting rudderless through unfamiliar and unimaginable events, of learning to go on when there is a hole in your heart, in your family, that can never be entirely stitched back together again. Told from the viewpoint of Niko, a thirteen-year-old girl, Prose writes brilliantly and deeply about loss, love, and the mysteries of death.
Cutting for Stone, Abraham Verghese. Knopf 2009. An engaging family saga. Even at more than 500 pages from its opening prologue to the very last word of his attributions, this author will capture your attention. He framed his story of this family in two unique ways: through the history and culture of Ethiopia and through the history and development of certain aspects of medicine. Not only is this the story of two boys born to a nun, fathered by a surgeon, and left behind to grow up in a warm adoptive family as part of a medical community in a country at war with itself, but it is the story of becoming a stranger in your own land. These are well-developed characters you care deeply about, yet at times despise their weaknesses. It is a story of compassion, betrayal, family love, and, above all, the flawed but magnificent qualities of being human. Author’s website: http://www.abrahamverghese.com
Home, Marilynne Robinson. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux 2008. If you love to linger over excellent writing and character development, I promise you a thought-provoking book you’ll long remember. This is a story about the conflicts of love when children are not who we think they should be, when a child feels alien in a family even though it’s a loving one. Robinson explores the struggles of a minister to love all of his children equally, even his prodigal son. And her key character, the man’s youngest daughter, finds herself a bridge between father and son even as she fears she may have to let go of her own long-held dreams to give them hope.
The Madonnas of Leningrad, Debra Dean. William Morrow 2006. A delightful discovery! While this is ostensibly a story about one young woman’s dire circumstances during the Siege of Leningrad, it is more deeply a story about the power of the mind, the richness that can still be present when all else fades away. Carefully researched, it provides remarkable detail about the lives of a small group of workers who stayed on throughout the siege at the Hermitage Museum, the deprivations they suffered, the efforts of some to retain “memory palaces” of all the magnificent art that once hung on its walls, and the effects on all of a once vibrant city brought to its knees by the Germans during the harshest winter on record.
Little Bee, Chris Cleave. Simon & Schuster 2008. An unusual story of life and payback, sacrifice and self-interest, woven around a violent chance meeting between two women on a beach in Nigeria. Chance can test your mettle, polish it or tarnish it—the tale of how these two women’s lives intermingled and the complexities of survival will give you plenty to think about long after the outcome is known. Cleave leads readers to reach a specific conclusion about events and then, drop by drop, bit by bit, provides detail that forces a reevaluation. Deep and provocative, a complete page turner. Author’s website: http://www.chriscleave.com
The Spare Room, Helen Garner. Henry Holt 2008. This small book is a rare jewel. Although fiction, it is written so directly, and so honestly that it rings with truth. Naming the main character “Helen,” the author makes us believe this is her story, and maybe it is. Maybe it is potentially the story of all of us. Helen’s friend Nicole comes to Melbourne to stay for two weeks and seek alternative therapy for serious illness. Becoming nurse, advisor, perhaps protector of Nicole are not roles Helen relishes and she finds her emotional and physical energy depleted as her reactions swing from outright rage to unbearable grief. Here a caretaker speaks openly about feelings we seldom hear discussed, using fiction as a vehicle for discussing our universal difficulties in dealing with death. Very moving, very compelling—a story beautifully told.
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, Jamie Ford. Ballentine 2009. Story, story, story—combined with skillful writing, it is story that draws people in and makes them care about a book’s characters. Beyond that, a new spin on a topic long discussed can make us think freshly about historical events and their impacts. Jamie Ford does all of this in his debut novel about a young Chinese boy, whose father is vehemently against all things Japanese because of brutal Japanese attacks on his homeland, and a young Japanese girl whose family becomes caught up in WWII internment raids in Seattle. In the opening scene, Henry (the boy, now in his fifties and a widower) is sharply reminded of an earlier era when a basement full of Japanese belongings is discovered during a construction project at the Panama Hotel, once the gateway to Seattle’s Japantown. Following Henry’s story as Ford moves agilely back and forth between present and forty years earlier, we gather insight into the difficulties for all families of Asian descent in a country at war and the extreme tactics employed to “defend the US against attack.” A marvelous story—warm, insightful, and filled with hope that love can survive against all odds. Author’s website: http://www.jamieford.com
Secret Son, Laila Lalami. Algonquin 2009. Raised in the slums of Casablanca, Youssef El Mekki has been told all his life his father died when he was very young. Youssef longs for a father’s love and influence in his life and dreams of a future when, with an education, he can escape the stench and poverty of his neighborhood. One day, by chance, he discovers that his father is not dead, but instead a wealthy, married businessman who abandoned his mother when she became pregnant. Youssef, too, abandons her as he moves toward what he thinks will be a brighter future under the guidance of a suave and sophisticated father. But events and vested interests beyond his control or knowledge reverse his circumstances and he is once more back hanging around on the street corner with his unemployed childhood friends. What happens to a young man who has seen the careless extravagance of wealth and privilege in a society with deep class divisions, where the poor bear the burdens of indifference? Lalami explores this highly pertinent issue in a story that will answer questions about the seemingly siren call of extremism at the same time that it breaks your heart. Author’s website: http://www.lailalalami.com