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All the Light We Cannot See. By Anthony Doerr. 2014.
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, this is an illuminating, enveloping historical novel about the lives of a French girl, who fled occupied Paris during WWII and is living in Saint-Malo, and a young German soldier, sent to the same French city in pursuit of spies conspiring against the Third Reich. For those who value a compelling voice in fiction, this is a special read.
Born Round: A Story of Family, Food and a Ferocious Appetite. By Frank Bruni. 2009.
It is ironic that Bruni, former restaurant critic for the New York Times, has all his life struggled with an addiction to food. His honest memoir is at once poignant and humorous, and completely enjoyable.
Cleopatra. By Stacy Schiff. 2011.
Schiff astutely, even beautifully, cuts through the myths and misconceptions surrounding the life of the legendary Egyptian queen. The picture created of Cleopatra’s capital city of Alexandria is complete and indelible; as is the author’s re-creation of the ancient world in which Cleopatra was a primary figure. All history appreciators will fall headfirst into this biography.
Cold Mountain. By Charles Frazier. 1997.
Frazier’s first novel changed the literary landscape. Before Cold Mountain, historical novels were usually considered genre fiction. After Cold Mountain appeared, garnering wide critical response and more than one literary award, historical fiction was taken more seriously. This Civil War novel follows Confederate soldier Inman, who is wounded in battle, as he walks back to his home in North Carolina, and his great love, Ada. Loads of rich detail.
Death of a Salesman. By Arthur Miller. 1949.
Miller, one of twentieth-century America’s foremost playwrights, created a lasting character in Willy Loman, a consummate tragic hero, who dreams big and fails big. With interesting supporting characters, Miller’s play will live on and on as a stirring depiction of one great American story.
Double Indemnity. By James M. Cain. 1943.
Believe it or not, I would nominate this novel as a candidate for the Great American Novel. Set in 1940s Los Angeles, this tale about an insurance agent lured into a housewife’s plan to murder her husband is a model of narrative sheerness as Cain uses ordinary vocabulary and simple sentences to evoke a dark mood. Cain’s book may make readers wonder why any novel needs to be more than 100 pages long!
The Fire Next Time. By James Baldwin. 1963.
This distinguished novelist (Go Tell It on the Mountain, Another Country, among others), who passed away in 1997, will be remembered primarily for this masterpiece of combined reviews and essays. Through his personal experiences growing up in Harlem, and his encounters with Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad in Chicago, Baldwin presents a searing indictment of American racial injustice.
Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital. By Sheri Fink. 2013.
Fink practices top-grade journalism in this revealing, riveting chronicle of events during Hurricane Katrina and the intense flooding that followed as experienced at New Orleans Memorial Hospital. This is a stunning depiction of disorder in the face of natural forces and human crises.
The Great Gatsby. By F. Scott Fitzgerald. 1925.
In many readers’ and critics’ estimation, this is the Great American Novel, by one of the best twentieth-century American writers. Fitzgerald’s tale of 1920s high life is seen through the prism of the escapades of fabulously wealthy Jay Gatsby and his pursuit of the married Daisy Buchanan on New York’s Long Island. Precise plotting matches immaculately conceived characterizations.
The Great Railway Bazaar. By Paul Theroux. 1975.
This contemporary classic of travel literature is as crisply written and relevant as when it was first published. In Theroux’s account of riding as many trains as he could board in Asia, he vividly emphasizes the people he meets over the places he saw. Rich in characterization, this travelogue reads like a good novel.
The Guns of August. By Barbara W. Tuchman. 1962.
The opulent Edwardian era, with its country-house parties and crowned heads swaggering across their little kingdoms and principalities, came crashing down in 1914 with the advent of WWI. Historian Tuchman’s very detailed account, focusing on the first 30 days of hostilities as a harbinger of the pointless destruction and bloodshed that would follow, is a classic of military history.
The Joy Luck Club. By Amy Tan. 1989.
With particular appeal to women readers, Tan’s novel, the first in a string of books she has written about her Chinese heritage, tells the heartfelt story of four Chinese women who formed a support group in 1949 in San Francisco. Alternating chapters give voice to the women and their daughters, who, fitting into a larger picture, reveal one aspect of the immigrant experience in America.
Killer Joe. By Tracy Letts. 1993.
This is the first play written by the hot contemporary playwright Letts, author of August: Osage Country. The Smith family conspires to kill the mother for her insurance money, and they hire Joe Cooper, police detective and part-time contract killer, to do the job. Complicated mayhem ensues in this shocking depiction of one family’s dysfunction.
Madame Bovary. By Gustave Flaubert. 1856.
If you want to offer your reading group a timeless classic, Madame Bovary is as classic as they come. Carefully composed in a surprisingly modern style, Flaubert’s story of the frustrated wife of a French provincial doctor and the trouble her suppression leads to has captivated readers since its publication.
A Moveable Feast. By Ernest Hemingway. 1964.
Hemingway, of course, is noted for his fiction. His classic novels, including The Sun Also Rises, are seen as partners to his moving short stories. However, my favorite Hemingway book is this memoir of his life in Paris in the 1920s as a member of the so-called Lost Generation. He rubbed shoulders with Gertrude Stein and Scott Fitzgerald at that time, when he was young and innocent, and that is the charm of the book. Readers who enjoyed Woody Allen’s movie, Midnight in Paris, will relish this.
Rabbit, Run. By John Updike. 1960.
Updike is considered one of the foremost fiction writers of the twentieth century, and the novel that put him on the critical and popular map was Rabbit, Run, the first of his quartet of Rabbit novels, featuring the life of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, whose life and career embody the hopes of small-town Americans striving to live the American dream.
Stories I Only Tell My Friends. By Rob Lowe. 2011.
If you have a book group interested in adding a celebrity memoir to its reading list—and a responsible one at that—then this is your ticket. Lowe has been in the acting business since he was young, and his look back over his career, particularly the people he worked with, is charming and honest. He is more than simply a pretty face, and his book will please serious readers.
Diaz is hot news these days and rightly so. His most recent fiction is a series of interconnected short stories limning the “love” experiences of Yunior, a Dominican immigrant to New York. Through him, the reader is exposed to a wealth of arresting characters, all bound by the vicissitudes of love, and Yunior’s street-smart, idiom-filled, rough but at the same time tender voice will ring in the reader’s ears long after the book is finished.
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