(Staff Favorites) Becky’s Picks
A WOMAN OF NO IMPORTANCE
This biography of Virginia Hall, one of the first women accepted onto the Career Staff of the CIA, reads like a spy novel. Hall rejected her mother’s matrimonial plans in favor of adventure and, even after losing her leg in an accident, Hall’s determination and spirit allowed her to parley her experience as an ambulance driver towards working as an undercover agent for a clandestine branch of the British Secret Service in Vichy, the hear of unoccupied France, during WWII. Later she worked for the American Government continuing to arm and organize groups of French guerrilla resistance fighters. This is a fascinating and thrilling read about a little known heroine of WWII whose work established tactics still used today.
ALL THE LIVES WE EVER LIVED
Megan K. Stack
When Stack gave birth to her son Max she left her prestigious job as a foreign correspondent to care for her newborn and to work on her novel. She discovered that, like birth, the experience of mothering a newborn can’t be anticipated. Despite the help of a full time nanny, instead of writing she was learning how to disappear. As time passed she began feeling her way first back into sanity, then her own skin, and the wider world. Then one child became two and her family relocated from China to India. Throughout the changes she reflected on the role of a nanny in her household. What must it be like to be a working mother, like herself, who leaves their child to go and care for another’s? Instead of reporting from a foreign war zone, Stack sends dispatches from the crossroads of domestic work and motherhood. Important. Compelling. WOMEN’S WORK is a study of motherhood, a work of cultural anthropology, a sociological argument, and a must read. -Becky
ALL THE LIVES WE EVER LIVED
“It’s difficult to believe in death for more than a few minutes at a time.”
Why is it that children seem to love the more tortured parent more? Maybe the same reason we love our tortured artists; we trick ourselves into believing their addictions and angers are marks of genius. Smyth grieves the loss of her father, the man she viewed with godlike reverence as a child, with increasing anxiety and fear as a teen and adult as his alcoholism consumed the man she knew, and with sadness and an ever deepening love as his failing body continued to carry him further from the living. Throughout this process she sought solace in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. Just as Smyth has an instinct for Woolf (according to a college to tuor), she also has an instinct for combining memoir with literary criticism and for allowing the metaphor of Woolf’s work to tell deep truths about the love between parents and children. This book makes you want to read all of Woolf’s writing, and to reread Smyth’s once you’ve finished. Stunning.
“This book has been an effort to write my way to an understanding of how to be alive in the meantime, in the final days, if not of the earth, then at least of the earth as I’ve known her. Because it has only been in knowing her that I’ve come to know myself.”
In this unironic love letter to mother nature Houston tells the story of how an 120 acre ranch in Colorado, over the course of a quarter century and with the help of friends (human, canine, equus, and fowl), taught her, a woman who has literally run with near-mythical creatures, to be her own cowboy. There is death, of elk and chickens and dogs, and destruction by blight and fire, but there so much life and hope and beauty captured here too. Houston models how to remind ourselves to be the change, especially during the many moments every day when we are failing to do so, how to acknowledge that we are part of the problem, and how to “live simultaneously in the wonder and the grief without having to diminish one to accommodate the other.” An important, timely book that is for all times and for all of us.
DAISY JONES & THE SIX
Taylor Jenkins Reid
You know that feeling you get when you’re a few pages into a book and you just know that it’s going to explode your heart into a million pieces? It’s a tingle, a secret being screamed in your ear. Reading DAISY JONES AND THE SIX is like that. “It feels so good, in the beginning.” Daisy Jones is a LA “it” girl with the looks of a Titian angel and a voice like honeyed whiskey poured over gravel. The Six started as a blues and rock band, the brainchild of brothers Billy and Graham Dunne. Separately they are talented musicians; together they become a seminal part of the late 70s rock scene. Until it all falls apart. Written as a documentary, with all the drugs and sex and infighting that makes a compelling episode of MTV’s Behind the Music, DAISY JONES AND THE SIX is about how music can save a life—or destroy it.
Three not haunted houses, four women—three named Lee and one named Gretel—and one gingerbread recipe. The mythology of gingerbread is baked into the Lee family history in this beautifully layered story of family, friendship, and belonging. Like the cookie, Oyeyemi’s novel is substantial, its shape quirky, and its sweetness laced with fire. Devourable, down to the last crumb. I give it three clementines!
THE PSYCHOLOGY OF TIME TRAVEL
Can time travel prevent murder? Four women scientists fulfill the vision of HG Wells in the late 1960s by inventing time travel. Their discoveries will lead to madness, murder, and an unexpected love story. In unpretentious writing Mascarenhas explores how a cadre of time travelers invent their own laws, currency, and culture, which supersede the variances across time periods. Moreover, she delves into the psychological impact of time travel on a a traveler’s view of death. If we have the ability to visit our dead in the past, when they are still alive, does anyone’s death even matter—except our own? Funny, moving, philosophical, and relentlessly entertaining.
Karen Thompson Walker
The phrase “sleepy college town” takes on new meaning in THE DREAMERS. Where do we go when we sleep? And, at the risk of sounding like a freshman philosophy major, how do we know when we are really awake? As more residents succumb to this unknown virus, the town is quarantined and the scene takes on the proportions of a natural disaster. Who will survive and what will be left, if and when, the dreamers wake? Told through the individual stories of a few college students—both awake and infected—a couple and their newborn, two sisters and their survivalist father, a visiting doctor, and a man whose partner is hospitalized with dementia. Fantastic.
One swab of the mouth. That’s all it takes. Thanks to the growing field of at home genetic testing, Dani Shapiro’s identity suddenly shifts when she discovers her father is not biologically related to her. What unfolds is part detective story, part study of the early world of artificial insemination, and part examination of what it means to be a daughter. Shapiro’s writing is full of depth and heart and wisdom. Discovering the father of her soul is not the father of her body at 54 is devastating, but is also beautiful. Shapiro claims her life, her writing, and her ever present feeling of unbelonging suddenly make sense. Her memoir is compelling and wrenching and, ultimately, full of gratitude and hope and awe. This is a stunning book.
A LADDER TO THE SKY
If your primary focus in life is fame, what won’t you do to achieve your goal? Is there anyone you won’t hurt, any aspect of life considered sacred? For writer Maurice Swift the answer is no, there is nothing he won’t do and no one he will let stand in the way of his shining literary career. And shine he does. But it is a long, cold fall from the stars back to earth. As much as I loved Cyril Avery, from The Heart’s Invisible Furies, is how much I detest Maurice Swift. And yet I enjoyed my intense disgust towards him, savored it as I was compelled to keep reading Boyne’s parable on the perils and pitfalls of blind ambition.
“What we miss—what we lose and what we mourn—isn’t this that makes us who, deep down, we truly are.” An unnamed woman of certain, also unnamed but implied, age inherits a giant of a dog, a Great Dane named Apollo, in the wake of her friend and mentor’s suicide. These two unlikely companions, as initial apprehension transforms to appreciation, wend their way through grief together. Written as though the woman were addressing her deceased friend, this is a uniquely beautiful and bitingly funny, bitter sweet treatise on grief, the art of writing, the state of the current literary landscape, and the powerful love between people and their “pets.” Unforgettable.
What if a fortune teller told you the day of your death when you were just a child? Would belief or disbelief rule your life? The four Gold children each react to their prophesied deaths differently. Simon charges ahead to the San Fransisco of the 1980s, carrying the knowledge of his death in his back pocket but never consulting it. Klara becomes a magician in Las Vegas, treating her own demise as part of a greater magic act, but her greatest trick won’t be death after all. Daniel spends his career as an army doctor fighting the mortality of others. Varya is perhaps the most stubborn nonbeliever of them all, yet her work with longevity research belies her lack of faith in the old woman’s predictions decades before. Each section in this beautiful, heartbreaking book is narrated by a different Gold sibling, and begs deep questions about life, death, immortality, and inevitability. Would knowing the day of your death help you prevent or change it, or is there no intervention big enough to fight the end that comes for us all?
THE END WE START FROM
We are all born from water, from the dark, wet interior of the womb. As a flood consumes England, a young woman gives birth for the first time. The metaphor could feel like a mother spoon-feeding her child, but in Hunter’s stark and powerful prose becomes a poem.. The unnamed narrator and her partner, known as R, struggle to navigate a world remade by both water and parenthood. Their story dissolves and reforms in each distilled paragraph in writing that is achingly beautiful, and is full of a sense of searching and of yearning. Hunter draws from religious texts and mythology from around the globe in her slim but sublime and, ultimately, perfect parable.
DO NOT BECOME ALARMED
Become alarmed…very alarmed! This domestic thriller is a perfect summer read, but also holds up all year. The tropical cruise is everything cousins Nora and Liv want for their families during the busy holiday season, until the children go missing. Switching perspective between the adults and the children, Meloy explores the lengths to which we will go in the face of our deepest fears. This is a smart, readable, and entertaining novel which stays with you.
COUPLE NEXT DOOR
Anne and Marco Conti return from a dinner party at a neighbor’s house to find their infant daughter missing. The investigation leads to unexpected revelations about the couple who, from the outside, appear so perfect. I listened to this thriller on audiobook and it took me a while to realize that my fiance kept wandering into whichever room I happened to be in because he was hooked on the story too. I wouldn’t call it a literary thriller, but it is solid modern fiction. The story is full of twists and has a completely unexpected ending. Great light reading.
THE TEA GIRL OF HUMMINGBIRD LANE
Not since Snow Flower and the Secret Fan has Lisa See written a novel so completely captivating. Li-yan, a tea farmer in rural China, is young and unmarried when she is forced to give up her daughter. Life carries Li-yan far from her village, her traditions and her midwife mother, even as modernity finds its way to the mountainside. But tea runs in Li-yan’s blood and offers her an unexpected, unprecedented, path. Across the globe in California, Haley grows up loved but displaced, and never quite feels like she belongs. All she has of her birth mother isa tea cake printed with unfamiliar Chinese characters. See has woven an unforgettable story of mothers and daughters, identity, and forgiveness. Through the intertwined stories of Haley and Li-yan, she delves into the little-known world of the Akah, and ethnic minority in China, and the history of tea in Asia and around the world. Fascinating and complex.
THE BURNING GIRL
Julia and Cassie are best friends as only prepubescent girls are, in a way that seems to remake the world just for two, that burns brighter and causes more obsession than lust or love, in a way that changes you indelibly and forever. But sometimes growing up means growing apart. Messud beautifully captures the formative female friendship in this suspenseful contemporary coming-of-age story set in a small town in Massachusetts. From realizing the fear inherent in inhabiting a female body, to recognizing the internal lives orbiting our own, Messud says something true about being on the cusp of womanhood. Gorgeous.
Evicted chronicles the evictions of eight families in Milwaukee, families of different sizes and backgrounds, with a shared circumstance. Arlene is a struggling single mother. Scott is a nurse whose back injury led to an opiate addiction. Lamar is a war veteran, recovering addict, double-amputee, and resident father-figure to the boys of his poor neighborhood. Desmond tells complex stories that explore poverty not as a structural or cultural force, but as an interaction between rich and poor. He details the business of eviction, from landlords to eviction courts to the moving crew and storage facilities. Housing is “too fundamental a human need” to be treated as just business, Desmond argues. He proposes solutions, including increasing funding to eviction courts and a universal voucher program, but also declares, “If our cities and towns are rich in diversity–with unique textures and styles, gifts and problems–so too must be our solutions.” This is one of the most important books of the last several years, and won the Pulitzer in 2017.
A ‘difficult woman’ has become shorthand for one who speaks her mind, who questions patriarchal power, and who refuses to be defined by a standard of femininity. The women who populate Gay’s story collection are all difficult in their own ways–mothers, sisters, lovers, some married and some single, most of flesh and one of glass–yet they are all searching for understanding, for identity, and for ways to make sense of a sometimes nonsensical, cruel world. Some of Gay’s stories are graphic, some are allegorical, and all are important commentaries on what being a female looks and feels like in modern America. If you love Her Body and Other Parties, or the poetry of Rupi Kaur, you must read this.
ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE
Our story begins in St.-Malo, as bombs rain from the sly–a written assault of the senses–with young Marie-Laure, alone and blind as the house shakes around her. Werner, a German orphan conscripted into Hitler’s Youth and then service, follows the blip of a radio transmission into the heart of the besieged city–a tenacious beacon of hope, and a voice he recognizes from his childhood. Doerr describes the separate, yet connected, journeys of Marie-Laure and Verner take to St.-Malo with the perfect balance of tension and compassion: His writing is rich with metaphor, alive with the political and social state of Hitler’s Europe, and shows readers that goodness, like light, is still present–even in the darkest of times. This is an incredible story, written with an eye for the beauty of language. Doerr won the Pulitzer for literature in 2015.
THE BEAR AND THE NIGHTINGALE
In this tale brothers Morozoko and Medved do battle, their fates hitched to the wings of a tiny songbird—a girl born from magical lines into a centuries old prophecy. As dark forces gather in the forest, only young Vasalisa stands between her village and an ancient evil. This is a story about the battles between Christianity and traditional lore, about the need of men to control women, and about the power of women to break away from such a hold. This beautiful, assured debut is as timeless as the Russian folklore the story draws from. Arden blends the history of Christianity in Russia with folklore in a story that both captivates and delivers deep truths about the battles between good and evil, the past and present, and men and women. This book is perfect for readers of Uprooted.