With the annual Emerson Book Fair coming upon us soon, it is time for me to give some reading suggestions for everyone in the Emerson community. Let's get the adults out of the way.
Here are a few of the books that I have read and enjoyed in the past few months. After reading the list, I am betting you will have some suggestions of your own or some comments on what I have been reading. Please add your suggestions and comments so that this blog becomes an active discussion board.
The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery demands thought from the reader as it throws out profound thoughts—some identified as such and others interwoven within the tale—at every opportunity. The protagonist sees herself and assumes others see her as a short, ugly, plump concierge at a bourgeois building in a posh Parisian neighborhood. Her little secret is that she has a devout interest in art, literature, philosophy, and music. Also in the building is a super-smart twelve-year-old who works diligently to hide her intelligence behind a facade of mediocrity. When these two women meet, the result is both funny and heart wrenching.
A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future by Daniel Pink was one of the gift books that Oprah gave to Stanford graduates in June. It has been on best seller lists for quite awhile. Therefore, it had little initial appeal for a contrarian. This fall, however, the University Musical Society invited educators to gather and talk about the ideas found here, and I could resist no longer. I was amazed by how interesting and useful it was. I feel a need to re-read and underline it to I can promote for myself and others the valuable six traits that Pink says we all need to thrive in the world of the near future.
The Family That Couldn’t Sleep: A Medical Mystery by D. T. Max is a book I would never have selected had I not been pushed by one of my book clubs. The mystery here is in the sense of science trying to find the causes and cures for a range of diseases that seem to be caused by prions, a disorder affecting the shape and activity of proteins. Specifically this book looks at Fatal Familial Insomnia by following an Italian family with a history of slow, painful deaths marked by an inability to sleep. While it drags at times and rants at others, this proved to be an interesting and educational read.
People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks is not my favorite of her books such as March, Nine Parts of Desire, and Year of Wonders, but it is nonetheless worth reading. In this book, the reader is taken into the world of art fraud investigation as well as through history as it follows a 15th century illuminated Haggadah. Each stain or other out of the order find in the book leads to a dip into the lives of the people who handled and admired it though history. The result is a wide span of history tied together with stories past and present.
Lottery by Patricia Wood is told in the voice of a 30-something man with an IQ, he reminds us, is 76. This is important to him because it is one point above officially being mentally retarded. He lives with his grandmother for many years, learning how to enjoy life while getting by on limited funds. Together they buy a lottery ticket every week and spend much time dreaming of how they will spend their potential winnings. Alas, it is not until shortly after the grandmother’s death, that Perry wins the lottery. From there he learns who his true friends are as well as what is really important to him.
The God of Animals by Aryn Kyle seemed very real to me as it looked at the traditional folks out West—those who kept horses for ranch work—as they meet with the new suburbanites who want to be around horses for the social status they provide. The narrator of the story, Alice Winston, is a 12 year old trying to understand life as the family falls into more troubles as the horse farm gets further away from its roots. There is some humor here, but it is mostly a sad story of a family looking for the one thing that will give them the life they want, whatever that may be.
A Far Country by Daniel Mason creates a rather surreal world that soon becomes all consuming. Two young people live in a community that depends on the weather to keep the sugar cane providing jobs and others to deal with political strife. Inevitably in a story such as this, drought forces them to leave for the city. With many political, environmental, and social comments, this book includes much to ponder.
The Birth House by Ami McKay offers a mix of rural and urban Nova Scotia in the early 20th century, naturopathy, women’s rights, and history. The author’s other job is with documentary television and her fact checking is very apparent. The main character, Ms. Dare, is the only Dare woman in a long line of men. That, along with some other interesting quirks, leads many to consider her to be a witch. She learns how to be a mid-wife right at the time that the outside world is encouraging woman to give birth in modern hospitals. These two worlds of health providers conflict in an engaging story.
The Whistling Season by Ivan Doig features the beautifully skillful writing for which Doig has rightfully become famous. Once again, Doig sets his story in rural Montana. The family in the story needs a housekeeper after the mother dies leaving a father and three sons to fend for themselves on the ranch. With a beginning like that you can easily predict how it will be end, but the writing and some unexpected turns will keep you reading until that end is reached.
Stealing Buddha’s Dinner: A Memoir by Bich M. Nguyen takes place primarily in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in the 1970s, which is not where one would expect to find a Vietnamese refugee family. Nguyen came to Michigan with her father and sister after being separated from her mother as Vietnam fell. After a few detours, the family and their Buddhist grandmother arrive in Grand Rapids, sponsored by a Dutch Reform Church. This clash of cultures, complicated when the father marries a woman of Mexican decent, makes for an interesting story, told in large part through her views of food. Which does she crave more; a Twinkie or her grandmother’s Vietnamese cookies?
Maps for Lost Lovers by Nadeem Aslam mixes the beauty of language and the wonders of nature in a wrenching story of love, religion, pride, sorrow, and the full range of human strengths and failings. Pakistanis living in Britain deal in their own ways with the need to keep their religious roots and ties to the homeland strong, while facing the inevitable changes that come from living in a new society. This dilemma is brought to the forefront when two young people decide to live together until one can finally get a divorce. The young lovers are murdered for their perceived sin and the world that the community has so carefully constructed falls apart.