my year in books (2022): The mighty cell, years of the plague, love, loss, and so much more

This year’s list of books stretched from the cell and its impact on medicine, to reconsidering history, to a deeper understanding of human nature. Books written by favorite authors (Louise Erdrich, Ian McEwan, Anthony Doerr, Isabel Allende, Siddhartha Mukherjee, Ali Smith) and non-American authors (Valerie Perrin, Giuseppe Di Lampedusa, Werner Herzog, Maggie O’Farrell). Science, nature, and environmental books (Helen McDonald, John Green, Michelle Nijhuis). Books about plagues (Geraldine Brooks, Laura Spinney). Memoirs (Kathryn Schultz, Amy Bloom, Kat Chow). A play (Aristophanes). Reading is a constant journey: stories well-told, preserving and reconsidering history, sparking new ideas. The annotated list of books, below, is a reminder of the vastness of what is available to us.


Vesper Flights, Helen McDonald (McDonald’s essays on nature infuse me with beauty, serenity, hope and sadness. She provides a witness to the world around us, now and how it was and how it might become. Deeply moving, these musings should cause us to want to spend as much time outside as possible, quietly listening, observing, and learning, from all the creatures around us.)

Lost and Found, a Memoir, Kathryn Schultz (Pulitzer Prize winner, Kathryn Schultz, writes of “lost” in all its permutations, a lost sock, a long-lost friend, losing one’s parent to cancer. Its counterpoint is “found”, renewed friendship, discovery and recovery, love. Her book is one of grief and love, how they are separate but intertwined, integral to one another, profound and trite. Her love for her father presages her extreme grief upon his death. Her love for her now wife, Casey Cep, is exuberant, joyful, and careful. She makes clear that loving one can also lead to grief if that person dies. Beautifully written, juxtaposing the mundane with philosophical musings. She encourages the reader to grieve openly while also celebrating life, digging deep into wanting to understand loss and finding its opposite. Schultz is magnificent in her openness about both her father’s death and her newly-found love.)

Orwell’s Roses, Rebecca Solnit (George Orwell, nee Eric Blair, planted roses in his garden/house in Wallington, England, along with fruit trees, vegetables, and other flowers. Yet, his writings, especially in his later years, were politically fraught with concerns of authoritarianism and totalitarianism, e.g., “Animal Farm” and “Nineteen Eighty Four.” He fought in the Spanish War, despised Stalin, died young from life-long lung problems. His writings and his joy in his flowers seem at odds. Solnit makes a strong case, in exploring Orwell’s life as well as others at the time and place and environment, that “bread and roses,” the realities of daily life  (and Orwell’s deep concerns about Stalin, totalitarianism, etc.) and joy (Orwell’s dedication as a gardener, for the pleasure of the senses), can be and must be compatible. In fact, to live without the “roses” makes understanding the rest of the world difficult, if not impossible. Interesting and unique perspectives. A wealth of knowledge about Orwell and the times in which he lived.)

The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz, Erik Larson (An insider’s perspective of Churchill, his family and his inner circle during the first year of his Prime Ministry. Fascinating individual stories from diaries including the “Mass Observers,” citizen-observers who studied the effects of Germany’s bombings on the British people, Churchill’s private secretaries and close friends and military advisers, and others, describe the physical, mental, and emotional aspects of The Blitz, the full-moon bombings, the stench and danger of the underground shelters, the intrigue. The book also contains key German (Hitler, Goebbels, Goring) points of view of what, why, and when they were doing what they did, the “evil” incarnate. The war becomes real and alive when told first hand in the moment from the key participants surrounding Churchill. It highlights his leadership, his quirks, and his absolute love for his country.)

Beloved Beasts, Fighting for Life in an Age of Extinction, Michelle Nijhuis (Profiles of individuals, e.g., Darwin, Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, African naturalists, etc.,  involved in “modern species conservation.” The approach is different depending on the observer: British big game hunters, Indigenous tribes, birders, conservationists, biologists, ecologists, and ordinary citizens. An essential study of the power to destroy species with the whys and hows of providing sanctuary to them. A fascinating account of conservation efforts with their different philosophies. All of the conservators ultimately realized that the best time to save species, whether plant or animal, is while they are “common,” long before they are endangered or almost extinct.)

In Love: A Memoir of Loss and Love,  Amy Bloom (Written with dignity and much love, Brian Ameche’s wife, Amy Bloom (the novelist), describes with such clarify and love her husband’s search for assisted suicide after his Alzheimer’s diagnosis. He refused to live a life less than full, understanding the consequences of their quest: an earlier death than might be natural. The laws in the US make assisted suicide almost impossible. An organization in Switzerland allows “accompanied suicide” for individuals with irreparable illnesses, declining cognitive impairment, and a few other categories. This journey, while sad, also shows the difficulties encountered, and the steely determination to make Ameche’s goal happen. )

Every Good Boy Does Fine, a Love Story, in Music Lessons, Jeremy Denk (A “piano lesson” book, Denk explores his life as a pianist, from awkward child with not-always understanding parents, to iterations of piano instructors, to exploring the “why” of music, Brahms, Mozart, Bach, and other classic and Romantic composers, learning the messages of music, the technicalities of playing, of listening, of teaching. Witty and illustrative, Denk’s arrogance and failures shared equally, this prodigy/genius delves into his personal life and his public appearances, the changing pedagogical styles of his instructors, with depth and self-reflection. The book is written in three primary parts, harmony, melody, and rhythm, with key pieces that formed Denk’s repertoire and piano style. It’s a memoir of love of music but also an homage to the great composers, allowing the reader to learn so much more about them and their music than lines on a sheet of music. )

Fanny M. Hensel, Das Jahr

All That She Carried, The journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake, Tiya Miles (A history of an object, an enslaved mother’s (Rose) cloth sack, given to her young daughter (Ashley) when she was sold to another slave-owner, embroidered by a great-granddaughter (Ruth) to tell their story. So often there was no written documentation of the almost 4 million enslaved people in the US, no record of their families, their history, their lives. Miles documents her search for this family’s history, providing us other resources to consider, the role and art of embroidery in the lives of black women, the meaning of the short sentences on the sack, the contents of the sack and what each item might have meant to the women, the narratives of other black families, especially the women. A broad historical perspective with specific and unique findings document those previously undocumented, making the enslaved people, often considered property, human beings whose history is both violent and unthinkable yet also warm and caring.)

The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together, Heather McGhee (McGhee challenges the embedded idea that life in America is a “zero-sum game,” meaning that lifting one group up necessitates putting another group down (we can’t all be winners). She uses this idea in her theory of racism in America, taking a deep look at so many areas in our country, whether economic, social, home-ownership, intergenerational wealth, education, segregation and integration, rural, urban. She believes that we can lift everyone, although starting from different places, we must lift everyone up, to start to rid the country of individual, institutional, and structural racism. Rife with statistics and the results of her research and interviews, she takes a different approach to understanding the bedrock of America and how, by what she called the “solidarity dividend,” we can understand our history and forge a path to a true democracy. She asks “Who is an American, and what are we to one another?” Without being able to understand the questions and their possible answers, our democracy is unlikely to survive. Unique perspective, thought-provoking ideas, perhaps more idealistic than what might be possible to achieve, I found the theories and the facts behind them critical to understanding how we might move forward.)

Seeing Ghosts, Kat Chow (Katelin’s (Kat) mother (an Asian immigrant) died when Kat was 15. Kat, her sisters, and father rarely discuss the mother’s death. Kat’s grief is barely below the surface, questions bubbling up, anger about the lack of knowledge of what happened, conversations with the dead woman, a ghost that follows Kat, the “what if” questions demanding attention. Narrated in a round-a-bout way, the book is one of grief, mourning, and undeniable loss. Kat’s relationship with her father is tinged with his inscrutable and frustrating lack of communication, his mixed up finances, his non-existent relationship with his deceased wife’s family, their interdependence after Kat’s mother as buffer dies. One gets a glimpse, perhaps, of cultural differences,  or “racial melancholia,” as Kat asks her father whether he considers himself Chinese or American, maybe a question she is really asking herself about living between cultures, different perspectives, habits, understandings.)

The Book of Delights, Ross Gay (Written during the pandemic, Gay’s (almost daily for a year) essays are delightful, funny, warm, heart-wrenching, elevating and contemplating and digesting the mundane, focusing on the dailiness of our lives. His sentences are unique, his perspectives are his own, his delights may not be my delights but they do make me reconsider how I think about what I see, smell, taste, touch, and hear.)

The Anthropocene Reviewed, Essays on a Human-Centered Planet, John Green (The 40 or so essays of “The Anthropocene Reviewed” are reviews, so to speak, of different aspects of humans living on earth, from collaborators who invented the QWERTY keyboard, to the shade of huge Sycamore trees, to memories of songs, mental illness and depression, road trips to the world’s largest paint ball, the amazing and the mundane. His first work of non-fiction, many of the essays come from his podcast about the Anthropocene, the era in which humans are living, creating, destroying. Lyrical, personal, universal, these essays are thoughtful and memorable. How does Green think about this time on earth: “We are so small, and so frail, so gloriously and terrifyingly temporary.”)

Fallen trees, Nag’s Head Preserve, North Carolina

On Time and Water, Andri Snaer Magnason (A different perspective on global warming, from an Icelandic author, who incorporates family stories and photographs of Iceland’s glaciers with the science of “water”(from millions of years ago during several Ice Ages of glaciers and oceans). Interviews with the Dalai Lama add to this unusual perspective of science/art/nature/humans. “Time” is ephemeral as millions of years of the earth’s history change in a mere 100 years. Who do you love who will be alive to remember you in a hundred years, two hundred years? How do we change our behaviors so that there is an earth for them to enjoy? The Dalai Lama counts on human compassion and morality to change the current course of events, all while the glaciers and waters of Tibet form the huge, necessary rivers for life in India, Pakistan and China. There are conflicting values and views on the causes and impact of global warming. Can we be persuaded to do what is necessary to protect our families and homelands? Magnason is sometimes hopeful, other times more dire in his predictions.)

Let’s Get Physical: How Women Discovered Exercise and Reshaped the World, Danielle Friedman (Journalist Friedman explores the twentieth century evolution of exercise as a means for, initially, trying to meet the ideals (mostly masculine-created) of beauty. Over the decades, as more women became committed to exercise, whether aerobics, jazzercise, barre, dance, running, body-building, and/or yoga, the fact of exercise became something more, a way to self-confidence, strength, camaraderie with classmates, freedom, independence, women deciding for themselves what and how and why they exercised. Focused primarily on middle-to-upper class white women with the financial means, time, and access to exercise, Friedman touches upon the marginalization of minorities and women with other than the “ideal” bodies, and how, while late to the exercise game, they are beginning to enjoy the benefits of it, too. The book investigates the originators of various forms of exercise along with women’s acceptance and claiming of exercise, whether running or jazzercise or yoga, while extolling the benefits of movement. While not revelatory to me as a life-long lover of movement (and one of the women interviewed for the book) and while I learned some interesting facts especially about the early pioneers of exercise, the writing style, essentially long-form journalism, wasn’t as compelling to read as I’d hoped.)

The Pants of Perspective: A 3,000 Kilometre Trail Running Adventure in the Wilds of New Zealand, Anna McNuff (A 30-year-old British woman runs the Te Arora trail from the tip of the South Island (Bluff) to the Top of the North Island (Cape Reigna) in New Zealand. She travels alone with the occasional meeting of friends, new trail acquaintances, hut “mates,” giving talks at local schools as part of her charity obligation for Outward Bound. The story is raw, self-deprecating, contemplative; Anna is unprepared, but somehow covers 3,000 km in 148 days, in wind, pouring rain, with multiple river crossings, on wild trails, in deep shrub, trees, along mountain peaks. Fascinating account of the trail and one woman’s adventure and stamina. While this is a fascinating account I couldn’t “feel” what Anna must have felt during the journey although she explained well the daily happenings. Maybe it was too much tell not show.)

The Song of the Cell, an Exploration of Medicine and the New Human, Siddhartha Mukherjee (The renowned doctor, scientist, author, and Pulitzer Prize winner for “The Emperor of all Maladies,” Mukkerjee presents in deep historical detail the discovery and understanding of the cell as the basis for life. We learn of its biology, its systems and organs, and its physiology, as scientists strive to understand its pathologies and the injuries, diseases and deaths caused by cell mutations or failure to rejuvenate. Fascinating and understandable treatise, deep science and personal stories, ethical and moral questions, the “new human” of the future as cells are better understood as the drivers for all medicine. The “song” is the issue: learning the interconnectedness and interconnectivity of cells to truly understand and apply how they work to combat disease, to repair bones, to kill cancer cells without killing the host body.)

Pale Rider, the Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World, Laura Spinney (A deep, thoughtful consideration of the Spanish Flu of 1918, with search for the origins of pandemics, the scientific and medical considerations of bacteria, viruses, medical treatment, the flow of information (and lack of information). The Spanish Flu killed anywhere from 50 million to 100 million people globally, the exact numbers unknown due to lack of data collection, outbreaks in isolated communities, poor understanding of the causes. The impact was also immeasurable, as it was considered the “forgotten” flu until the last several decades  as understanding of viruses became more known. The author posits that the outcome of World War I, the demographic changes after the war, how individual and collective memory of the flu years varied depending on how devastating it was in the area where an individual lived, are all again under consideration as the world thinks about possible other pandemics and how they might be handled. Published in 2017, some of the lessons could have but were not applied to the COVID-19 pandemic.)

The Beauty of Dusk: On Vision Lost and Found, Frank Bruni (Bruni, a New York Times columnist, now op-ed writer, has stroke that causes him to lose most of vision in one eye. His journey to “finding” his vision, in “seeing” the world in a different way, adjusting his expectations, finding others who live with and overcome and shine with their disabilities or illnesses or unexpected twists in their lives, rejoicing in what they can do and not harboring what they can no longer do, is replete with metaphors, anecdotes, philosophical musings, straight-forward admissions of who he was and who he became, a better, more contemplate self. Lots of lessons for those of us who are dealing with aging, unexpected changes in life, twists and turns. Good food for thought.)

Fernando Pessoa, “second” most respected poet in Portugal

Adrift, America in 100 Charts, Scott Galloway (A look to America’s recent past and a consideration of how we got today, in short paragraphs and charts. Galloway distills the data and measurements to quantify the “drift” of Americans, primarily the diminishment of the middle class, the backbone of our country, from respected world leader, social innovator, strong economy and institutions, to a country without direction or shared culture, where healthcare costs bankrupt, social media distorts connections, education lags other countries, the pandemic intensified our social isolation and the “printing of money,” along with other woes. He has ideas on restoring the middle class, the balance, the future, but it will be hard and it will take cooperation. The question is whether we have it in us as a society to “right the ship.” Unique narrative to focus on charts and graphs; a little dry, perhaps more narrative and color would have made it more compelling read to me.)

PLAYS (1):

Birds, Aristophanes (Two Athenian friends decide to leave Athens to find a more peaceable city, less litigious and busy than Athens. They seek advice from the birds, for a place in the sky, between earth, inhabited by humans, and the heavens, inhabited by the gods. The place will be named “Cloud Cuckoo Land.” Comic, absurd, but with strong political overtones of Greek life, the play is one of the few extant writings of Aristophanes. Anthony Doerr’s novel, “Cloud Cuckoo Land,” uses themes from the play to weave together his stories, the idea of human connections, the love and preservation of books.)


The Personal Librarian, Marie Benedict (A fictionalized account of Belle da Costa Greene, the personal librarian to J. Pierpont Morgan in his establishment of the Pierpont Morgan Library of rare manuscripts, early Gutenberg Bibles, “…incunabula and manuscripts that together tell the history of the written word and its power to life humanity…”. Based on the true story of Belle, a young black woman passing as white and the stress and consequences of that secret. She was personal librarian to Morgan, becoming one of the most successful women in the early to mid-1900s, especially in the art world. An insight into the world of the ultra-rich in US but also about disguising who we are, making very hard choices to escape one’s past, then, severe segregation, the impact of being black. While not a lot is known about Belle’s personal life, the authors create a credible story for her struggles, her choices, her losses.)

The Beekeeper of Aleppo, Christy Lefteri (A heartbreaking, wrenching fictional account of refugees from Aleppo, Syria, traveling to England for asylum as result of ongoing war in that country. Nuri, a beekeeper, his wife, Afra, an artist, hesitatingly leave Aleppo, after their seven-year-old son was killed in bombing. Their story is the reality of millions of refugees fleeing their war-torn countries, with unthinkable dangers, hunger and starvation, loss of hope, missing family members, the loss of self, who one knows or knew oneself to be, maybe stuck forever in between countries. Nuri and Afra, while together, become separated emotionally by their grief, the loss of their home, their son, all they once knew. The story has flashbacks, dream sequences, non-chronological sections, which, at times, are confusing. Still, the overall effect brings one to the realization of what people do to survive, to keep going in the worst of circumstances, for one another, for their family, for their sanity. “What does one see” is the author’s guiding principle in researching, living (as a volunteer at a refugee camp in Athens), writing this book; what would you see in these circumstances?)

Winter Garden, a Novel, Kristin Hannah (Alternating between the early 2000s and life in Leningrad, Russia, during World War II, Kristin Hannah crafts a story of love and loss. The horrors of life in Leningrad, besieged by the Germans, cut off from the rest of Russia, the city became one of women, children, and old men, starvation, cold, deprivation. In Washington state, a father dies, living his wife and two daughters with fraught, distant relationships. A fairy tale, told quietly, hesitatingly by the mother, slowly brings the family together. Lovingly written, toggling between the fairy tale to write of life in Leningrad and the present, the author brings forth how to forgive oneself by learning to open up to others.)

The Nickel Boys, Colson Whitehead (Based on the Dozier Boys’ Reform School scandal, Whitehead provides a searing narrative of the cruelty of Jim Crow and individual humans, a systemic approach to “teaching” young boys, black and white, after they’d committed crimes, were run-aways, or maybe just orphans. The Nickel School was calm and lovely on the outside, but darkness resided in the dormitories, the work rooms, the “White House,” where horrific physical punishment occurred in the middle of the night. Boys were maimed, killed (often tossed in an unmarked “cemetery” in the back of the lush grounds), badly mistreated, without remorse. Whitehead’s writing style is spare but captivating in the story of Elwood, Turner, and others, boys caught in a web of terror, reminding us that hundreds of years of untenable racism in our country continues today. The story moves quickly with a twist ending. Highly recommend.)

The Book of Lost Friends, Lisa Wingate (Wingate employs two protagonists, Hannie, a young freed girl during the Reconstruction period in 1875, working as sharecropper on the same plantation where she and her family had been enslaved people, and Benny Silva, a first-year teacher at the public school in the same town in Louisiana in 1987. Hannie unwittingly helps the two daughters of her former master (one white, the other Creole) in seeking Mr. Gossett’s legal documents to secure their legacy and her freedom. Traveling from Louisiana to Texas by boat, train, wagon, disguised as boys, they discover want ads of “lost friends,” similar to obituaries in southern African-American newspapers, where the newly freed seek word of loved ones lost to slavery, capture, the war, etc. As their individual story plays out, they help others seek their “lost friends,” eventually creating a book. Silva, in the modern times, uses the local Gossett estate’s library and documents from local residents to inspire her students to learn their history, often lost without documentation. The intersection of the two protagonists occurs when Silva’s students and the current owner of the estate discover unmarked graves, family Bibles, etc. giving them a sense of their own legacies. Based on real lost friends’ advertisements, Wingate weaves interesting tales of both the plantation owners and the freed slaves.)

The Twilight World, Werner Herzog (Based on the true story of Hiroo Onoda, a Japanese soldier on the island of Lubang, who was ordered to keep the island protected for the Imperial Army during the end of World War II. Onoda never believed Japan surrendered; he kept watch over the northern jungle end of the island (early on with four other soldiers, but over the years he was the only one to survive or not to surrender) until 1974, almost thirty years. Herzog portrays the facts as accurately as possible but creates the fiction, filling in blanks in Onoda’s memory, mesmerizing in the descriptions of living in the rain, rain, fog of the jungle, Onoda caught in the philosophy of the all-encompassing Emperor of Japan, the timeliness/timelessness of time, past and future, no present. The true facts are incredible, but told with Herzog’s literary skill, beautiful and sad.)

Giverny, Monet’s home and inspiration

Horse, a Novel, Geraldine Brooks (Based on actual events, Brooks weaves a tale of thoroughbred racing in antebellum Kentucky where enslaved men were an integral part of the industry, whether as trainers, grooms, jockeys, before the outbreak of the Civil War. The horse, Lexington, was the greatest thoroughbred of its time, siring over 750 colts and fillies during his 25 year life, while turning in the fastest four-mile times, record that held for decades. Fascinating, yet at times horrifying, account of the treatment of horses and men, both enslaved and free men, alongside the incredible tenderness and love of a young boy and Lexington. Brooks ties the antebellum period with modern day study of horse mechanics, the art of equestrian portraiture, and the treatment of black men, still, in America.)

Year of Wonders, a Novel, Geraldine Brooks (Having read this book almost 20 years ago, I was intrigued by Brooks delicate handling of a village (based on Eaym, England) that voluntarily (the “Sunday Oath”) agreed to close itself to in-comers and out-goers to try to contain the Plague. The villagers are heavily swayed by their minister, recent to the village after the church was led by Puritans, to obey God’s will. The consequences are severe, with almost half the villagers dying during the year of the Plague. Bad behaviors, self-doubt, horror, sorrow, lightness and new friendships come to the fore as the town is broken apart. Lovely but sad, the isolation and loss of community bares the goodness and the terror that lives within us.)

The Leopard, a Novel, Giuseppe Di Lampedusa (Sicily, in the 1860s, on the verge of the consolidation of Italy. The Salina family, the aristocratic landowners of this island, and Don Fabrizio, the Prince, are the center of this historical novel (based on the author’s great-great-grandfather) about time passing, politics changing, the shifting of the guard, the beauty and energy of the next generation. With great detail and empathy (and some humor), the Prince makes his way through life, trying to keep alive a life-style that revolution and democracy will leave behind. Descriptive of the land, the relentless sun, the machismo of the men and the meekness of the women, Lampedusa writes well of the subtle changing of the social and economic and political landscape.)

The Marriage Portrait, Maggie O’Farrell (A novel based on the small details of the life, marriage and death of Lucrezia, daughter of Cosimo (and his wife, Eleonora) d’Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany in the latter 1500s, and wife of Alfonso II, Duke of Ferrara. Little is known about Lucrezia but that she supposedly died of “putrid flu,” after not quite one year of marriage to Alfonso. Isolated from her family, Lucrezia’s wild imagination but unusual ability to see beneath the surface of things, caused her to think her husband would murder her, for being unable to conceive (yet, Alfonso never had any children even with two subsequent wives). The book weaves around the “marriage portrait” that Alfonso arranged, for the world to see “his duchess,” possessive, obsessed, concerned about saving his family’s dynasty. O’Farrell takes little known facts and conflates them into a vivid life of a young woman. While “Hamnet” touched me more emotionally, “The Marriage Portrait” was creative and very readable.)

The Memory Keeper of Kyiv, Erin Litteken (Ukraine, 1930s, Stalin and his supporters intentionally starved the villagers [the Holodomor, meaning death by starvation] of eastern Ukraine in an attempt to collectivize the farms and establish communism in that country. The effect was the loss of between 3.5-5 million people, even while the famine was denied by Russians and people around the world. This story of a young woman and her family during that time, of love, of loss, of resistance and amazing strength, is woven with the story of that woman’s granddaughter almost 75 years later. Living through terror is almost impossible, but survival is possible, to live and love again even amongst unspeakable pain. Well-written characters, a little formulaic, but good insight into the Russian/Ukraine history, that seems to continue to repeat itself.)

The Only Woman in the Room, Marie Benedict (Hedy Keisel, Austrian actress, wife of munitions/military advisor, escapes to America as Nazis are ready to invade Austria. She is beautiful, becomes Hollywood movie star, with the stage name Hedy Lamarr (her Jewish heritage unbeknownst to the still anti-Sematic US. She is wildly successful but feels guilty about leaving family and friends behind, knowing some of Hitler’s intentions, as World War II breaks out. Lamarr becomes an inventor, taking the knowledge from her meetings with her first husband and the Austrian and Germany military, to create and patent a tool to prevent torpedoes from being jammed by radio frequencies. Her quest to help shorten the war by providing the US Navy with her ideas are shot down, she’s a woman and the military could not countenance her intelligence. Instead, they use her beauty and acting to help very successful sell war bonds. A story of a woman of keen intelligence, self-taught, misunderstood, only wanted for her beauty, is universal. Fascinating history of Lamarr but lacks depth lacks dimension.)

West with Giraffes, Lynda Rutledge (Based on the true story of giraffes hauled across the US in 1938 after the ship in which they were being brought capsized in NY Harbor during hurricane, the narrator is the fictional orphan who drove the rig across country, writing as a now 103 year-old-man looking back on his life. The Dust Bowl, the hobos, the families hauling all their goods West, the sight of two giraffes, the first in America, peeking out from their crates brought some comic relief to the country in the depths of the Depression and on the eve of World War II. Adventures, mishaps, circus thieves, escaping memories, and reflecting on what might have been and what was, we gain some insight into those times. Fun read.)

The Lives of Diamond Bessie, Jody Hadlock (Historical fiction, based on the life of Annie Moore (aka Diamond Bessie), a young woman in 1870s Chicago. Shunned by family and the inability of most independent single women to get jobs, she became a demi-mondaine (high-class prostitute), living at several different “houses” (brothels) in the mid-West. Charmed by a handsome—but thieving and lying man, she doesn’t listen to instinct but instead marries him, thinking it’s her road to respectability. Instead, within 11 days of marriage her husband kills her and steals her diamonds. The second half of the book uses the tool of “earth spirit”,  Annie/Bessie before she “passes over” to the next world, waiting until her husband is convicted of her murder. This form of narration has been used in several of the books I’ve read this year. Changes the viewpoints and perspectives with more foreshadowing capabilities. The post-script section about the exploits of the husband in his later years was fun to learn.)


The Promise: A Novel, Damon Galgut (2021 Booker Prize winner, “The Promise” studies the Swart family, descendants of Voortrekker settlers, clinging to their South African farm amid tumultuous social and political change — “just an ordinary bunch of white South Africans,” he writes, “holding on, holding out.” Beginning in 1986, the novel moves toward the present, following Ma, Pa and the three Swart children: Anton, a military deserter and failed novelist; Astrid, a narcissistic housewife; and Amor, an introspective loner who eventually becomes a nurse. The family’s life parallels that of post-Apartheid South Africa, changes on the surface but moral decay beneath. The “promise,” made by the mother on her deathbed, that Salome, the black housekeeper/nanny, would be given the piece of land upon which the small house in which she lives is located, simmers below of the surface of the father and siblings’ consciousness, whether to be acted upon or not. Perhaps a metaphor for South Africa, broken promises, decay, self-righteousness. Galgut’s writing style is courageous and non-linear, changes in voice, rhetorical questions, run-on sentences, not-quite paragraphs, which I found engaging and enhanced the uncertainness of the characters. Hopelessness runs throughout the novel, with an occasional sliver of light. Highly recommend.)

The Book of Form and Emptiness, Ruth Ozeki (Ozeki’s literary style is unique, blending seemingly every day moments with otherworldly events: Benny hears objects’ voices; his mother, Annabelle, is mourning her deceased husband, Kenji, the family’s stability, while trying to work amidst growing clutter in her apartment. Benny is misunderstood, diagnosed with an assortment of mental disabilities, while being the subject and object of a book that is narrating his story. The ultimate object of practicing Zen (which Kenji practiced as did the author of a book on tidying, which literally falls into Annabelle’s lap) is “emptiness”, a concept repeated throughout the novel in various ways, absence, the form of books, etc. “What is real” is Benny’s test philosophical question, a question that each of us might answer in different ways. He is tested as are the readers, in finding our own versions of “real.”)

The Last Thing He Told Me, Laura Dave (A husband (Owen) suddenly disappears, leaving his wife (Hannah) with a note, “Protect her,” and his teenage daughter (Bailey) with a duffle bag of money, after the company in which he works is being investigated by the SEC for fraud and its founder indicted. The wife discovers her husband is not what he seems and for the sake of his daughter, she starts her own investigation into his disappearance. I don’t typically read mysteries but the writing style was quick and the story interesting. No spoilers!)

Under the Whispering Door, TJ Klune (“Queer fantasy.” Wallace, a not-much-liked lawyer, dies, is taken by Mei, a reaper, to a tea house where Hugo, the ferryman, lives. Hugo helps souls “cross-over” from life to death. Wallace isn’t ready to cross over, but with Hugo’s help, he learns about what is important in life. Then given seven days to “live,” he falls in love, makes amends, and helps others who are “suspended” complete their journeys. Part fantasy, part romance, Klune deals with tough questions about death: grief, “what would you do if you only had seven days to live?,” hope. The book drags in places, the characters sometimes too silly, one needs to suspend belief, but told with empathy and thought-provoking questions.)

Violeta, Isabel Allende (Isabel Allende is a suburb novelist, dramatic, sometimes with South American “magical realism,” deeply drawn characters, but I was disappointed in this book. “Violeta” is written as a recap of letters from a grandmother (Violeta) to her grandson, written over most of the 100 years of Violeta’s life. She was born during the Spanish flu of 1920 and died during the coronavirus pandemic of 2020. Her life is full of drama, money, famous or infamous fathers and lovers, impacted by the two world wars, the rise and fall of dictators and democracies in Chile, family sadness and joy. The narrative is an easy read but the form, first person reminiscences, with distant memories brought forward, doesn’t have the drama or immediacy of many of her novels, too much “tell” not enough “show.”)

The Sentence, Louise Erdrich (Set in Minneapolis from November 2019-2020, the epi-center in many ways of the George Floyd protests, the pandemic lock-downs, love, mystery, a book store, family (with Indigenous heritage) and hope. An homage to books (how many of us read encyclopedias as a child?) and independent book stores, this novel has a twist with a ghost, Indigenous traditions, a world spun on its head. Not Erdrich’s best book but a quick thoughtful read. And the list of Tookie’s books at the end was a gem.)

The Swimmers, Julie Otsuka (Kirkus review: “The combination of social satire with an intimate portrait of loss and grief is stylistically ambitious and deeply moving.” Almost two novels, the first half of the book is the tale of mostly anonymous swimmers at an underground pool, individuals known by the lane, the speed, the stroke. The short, clipped sentences with a “we” narrator gives one the feeling of swimming back and forth, over and over, the routine not varying, life in the water. And then a mysterious crack in the bottom of the pool eventually causes it to close and the narrative switches gear. The book becomes personal, a mother-daughter story. Alice, the mother, descending into the world of dementia and memories while the author-daughter realizes too late the years of getting to know her mother. Unique voices, unusual combination of stories, a heart-felt story.)

The Book of Longings, a Novel, Sue Monk Kidd (A woman-centered version of The New Testament, when women were silenced, the property of their fathers and husbands. Ana, a young woman of standing, full of passion, educated, a writer, marries Jesus, a poor young man, before his conversion to prophet and Son of God. A story of longing, of the places of Judea, Nazareth, and Alexandria (the site of Therapeutae, a monastic-like community in Egypt, where Jewish philosophers lived and to which Ana retreats), of men’s power and greed. It is written with tenderness and grace, not an upheaval of the story of Jesus but of a different story, one that could have been true. Told from Ana’s perspective, a young woman with longings of her own and a voice, Kidd follows closely with some deviations the time in which Jesus lived.)

The Lincoln Highway, a Novel, Amor Towles (Two brothers, Emmett and Billy, are left orphans, plan to leave their mid-west town to either go west—to find their mother—or east to build their fortunes. Their plans are interrupted and re-directed by Duchess and Wooly, two of Emmett’s fellow-incarcerated youth. An American Road trip on the Lincoln Highway, the first intercontinental road way, the boys head east, through the adventures and escapades of their uninvited companions. The adventure has twists and turns, ups and downs, bouts of kindness, scores to settle, tales of heroes, both real and imaginary, as Towles speeds his characters through ten days by car, train, subways, from Nebraska to Manhattan and the Adirondacks. Duchess is the instigator (and the only character whose chapters are in the first person), while Emmett and his brother Billy are seeking a life in California, and Wooly, the son of wealthy New Yorkers, medicated, goes along, but ultimately makes his own choices. Adventure, minute details, loyalty, and the small details create the spirit and joy and hardship of this novel. Highly regarded, long but fast-paced, the novel didn’t pull me in as I’d expected or hoped.)

Buddenbrooks, the Decline of a Family, Thomas Mann (Mann’s first novel, written at the age of 26, a 1,000-page novel about the Hanseatic bourgeoisie in the years from 1835 to 1877, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize. Considered the predecessor generational novels. The book follows four generations of the Buddenbrooks, a wealthy family living in a town in northern Germany, through the stages of economic prosperity and concomitant social standing to slow decline, financial, societal, and psychological. The characters are incredibly well-drawn, from their physical attributes, their clothing, and their habits, to their beliefs about their “place” in the world of snobbery, generational privilege, and wealth. The town and its surroundings become familiar to the reader. Each generation becomes the precursor for the success or failure (and burden) of the next generation. Families survive or fall together; prestige is all-important but also superficial. The nineteenth century was a time of change in Germany and the surrounding countries, but except for some impact on commercial interests, the citizens go about their lives as if living in their own ecosystem. Wonderfully written, very readable, despite its length.)

Agatha of Little Neon, Claire Luchette (Four religious sisters, novitiates together, live their life in synchronization, mostly living and working at Little Neon, a home for teenagers and young adults with substance abuse, homelessness, or other problems, which require oversight. Their days are mostly uneventful, setting up Bible study, cooking, cleaning, praying. When Agatha is asked to teach geometry at the local girls’ school, she doesn’t complain, although she is barely one step ahead of the students. Yet, she slowly discovers what she hadn’t considered: that one’s ideal life might not be one’s real life. The book was light, not much character development or depth, eventually breaking away from the religious life to seek something else.)

The Skylark’s Secret, Fiona Valpy (Northern Scotland: during WWII, British fleet used Loch Ewe harbor as naval base and touch-off point for Arctic convoys to get supplies to Russian. Told in two time lines, Flora, the game keeper’s daughter, Flora, during war time, and her daughter, Lexie, 35 years later. Both single mothers, the importance of friends and family and the community of their small town are critical to their lives. Nicely told, with historical detail of the fleet’s impact on the small Scottish village, and living among the scrub landscape, wild harbor, and harsh climate.)

The Song of Achilles, Madeline Miller (The Orange Award, 2012, author of “Circe.” Achilles, born of the sea-nymph Thetis, and the king, Peleus, is destined to be the greatest Greek warrior of all time. The golden half-human/half-god boy befriends Patroclus, a prince banned for killing a boy. The young boys have an almost idyllic childhood, becoming lovers, safe, tucked away except for the wrath of Thetis. When all the kings of Greece bind together to fight for Helen, Achilles is tested, knowing the prophecy of his death. Miller’s story of the gods, the follies of men, fealty, loyalty and betrayal, is told with reverence to the almost-forbidden but tender love between Achilles and Patroclus, the wrath of fathers and mothers, the demanding power of the gods. Ultimately, the story is about relationships, trust, and dynasty. How well does one know oneself or anyone else? What would one ultimately do for one’s family or love? Universal questions, perhaps unanswerable.)

Companion Piece, Ali Smith (The book following the Seasons tetralogy, Smith is truly a wordsmith. Her protagonist is known for her ability with words, nimble, cunning, delightful. A book about chooses, “curlew or curfew”, a rare bird with a long, narrow beak, flying high, or the restrictions of time, here, the lock-down because of COVID, or centuries ago, the plague or homelessness or vagrancy, marked, taken, restricted. The reader must make her own chooses, led by the author’s skill in her use of words, how each meaning can change one’s direction, one’s decisions, one’s life. Seemingly a simple small book, I delighted in the sentences, the obscure words, the lightness within the dark times.)

Orlando, a Biography, Virginia Woolf (Part fantasy, part musings, a sixteenth century Orlando, curious, well-read, moody, solitary, questions the norms of his society, while at times wallowing in his vast wealth. The book is written from his “biographer’s” perspective, the narrator speaking directly to the reader at times. Woolf transforms Orlando, the man, to Orlando, the woman, several hundred years into her more than three-century existence. Almost a love letter to Woolf’s lover, Virginia Sackville West, the novel transcends time and structure, beginning with England in the time of the first Queen Elizabeth and ending in 1928. Meanwhile, Orlando transcends gender, from male to female, observing along the way the perceived differences—and privileges—of the two sexes. Woolf’s writing style is part poetry, part prose, run-on sentences and paragraphs, playful descriptions of people and places, with an emphasis on nature and writing, not subjects to be considered by young women of the mid-centuries, but reserved for men. A delightful, magical book, Woolf raises questions within her own lines.)

Atonement, Ian McEwan (A novel of wrongful actions, which led to shame, questions of forgiveness and absolution, a tour de force. Thirteen-year-old Briony witnesses a crime, at least what she in her vivid, fantastic imagination believes is a crime by the son of her family’s caretaker. Her actions have far-fetching consequences, breaking apart her family, almost destroying a young man’s life, changing the trajectory of her hopes and dreams. Covering the period from before World War II until a family reunion in 1999, the book is comprised of four parts: the events and people surrounding the crime; Robbie’s struggles to return from France to England during the British  Dunkirk retreat; Briony’s stint as student nurse in London during the war; and a family reunion in 1999 celebrating Briony—where it might be assumed that Briony was author of book, thinking about different endings, but never finding true atonement for her actions. Beautiful, brilliant, introspect, one of McEwan’s best.)

Amsterdam, Ian McEwan (Winner of the Booker Prize, Amsterdam is a dark, sometimes comedic, novel. Three men, connected by Molly, recently deceased, all former lovers: a composer, a newspaper editor, and a politician. Lives intertwine, mishaps occur, commitments are made that have disastrous consequences. Perhaps a morality tale: thinking ones’ self is above reproach or his actions without consequences, or problems can be “erased” by assisted suicide, which in the book was available in Amsterdam, hence the title. While each character is detailed, they are not likable or memorable. “Atonement” is much more nuanced, deep, psychological, to me.)

Joan, a Novel, Katherine Chen (An intensely personal account of Joan d’Arc, imagining her childhood at the hands of an abusive father, a loving sister, hard work, a giant of a young woman (“Amazon”). Different than the many histories and biographies of Joan, this novel creates the woman-warrior, as intimately involved with battle strategies, humane treatment of the soldiers, understanding of their wives and children, wanting so much to save France from the English and the Burgundians, near the 70th years of this almost 100-year war. She supports the Dauphin although realizing he is weak, jealous, not a strong king but who she must cultivate in order to support her beloved country. Betrayal, danger, a woman alone among men, Joan d’Arc thrives and would likely have survived had she truly had the support of the King and his men. Moving and engaging. [Wall Street Journal review: “Even Bertrand Russell and Mark Twain, an atheist and a skeptic, respectively, didn’t dare to portray Joan as anything other than what she was: a simple, devout girl of 19 who died at the hands of corrupt clerics who distorted her image for political gain.”])

The Complete Book of Dragons

The Time of Our Singing, Richard Powers (Science (mathematics, physics, time), art (music), and race are intertwined in this saga of an American family, David, the father and Jewish émigré from Germany before WWII, Delia, the mother and a black woman from Philadelphia, and their three children, Jonah, an extraordinary singer, Joseph, the pianist, and Ruth, a black activist. David and Delia would not have been allowed to be married as an interracial couple in 3/4s of the United States when they marry in 1940. They create an insular world for their children in NYC, schooled at home, immersed in music, unaware, mostly, of the racism that accompanied them wherever they go. Time is mutable, flexible, no past, no future, only the present, except when there is a past and future. The music shields them all for a time, until it doesn’t. Long and sometimes exhausting, Powers turns things upside down and inside out, yet the book pulls the reader faster and faster toward danger, the reality of living in America for those “not white,” but also the possibility, that David believes of the life that is “impossible” to Delia, that one can live and see beyond race or before race.)

Cloud Cuckoo Land, Anthony Doerr (“Anthony Doerr, best known for his Pulitzer-winning bestseller All the Light We Cannot See, returns with a sweeping page-turner about individual lives caught up in war and conflict, from 15th-century Constantinople to a future spaceship in flight from the dying earth. Cloud Cuckoo Land (4th Estate) is a love letter to books [library theme: Anna and the Urbino men who plan on building a library large enough to hold every book ever written] and reading, as well as a chronicle of what has been lost down the centuries, and what is at stake in the climate crisis today: sorrowful, hopeful and utterly transporting.”

The connection amongst primary characters throughout the book is the fable/story/magic of “Cloud Cuckoo Land,” a story told by Aethon (name meaning “burning” or “hunger”) to his dying niece, about a shepherd who becomes a donkey who becomes a fish, who becomes a crow, who seeks a magical city in the clouds. The novel weaves among Zeno, an orphan and Korean War veteran, in mid-1950s-2020 in Idaho, who translates “Aethon’s” story; Seymour, a young boy in Idaho with learning disabilities, who becomes drawn to climate change/terrorism, and tries to bomb the library where five children are putting on a play written by Zeno about Aethon; Omeir, a young boy with a hairlip living outside Constantinople in mid-1400s who is forced to join the Sultan’s army in its goal to burn down the city; Anna, a young girl living in a convent in Constantinople, who discovers parts of Aethon’s text, and later escapes the city, finds, and lives the rest of her life with Omeir; and Konstance, who lives in Argos, the space ship created to send selected humans off the planet, eventually to return in 500+ years, who finds scrapes of the story of Aethon (told to her by her father) as she explores the Atlas and the all-important library with everything (but perhaps not) in the world in it.

Pg. 568 (Seymour: “But as he reconstructs Zeno’s translation, he realizes that the truth is infinitely more complicated, that we are all beautiful even as we are all part of the problem, and that to be a part of the problem is to be human…In a child’s cursive, beneath the crossed-out lines, Aethon’s new line is handwritten in the margin: “The world as it is is enough.”)

Elegant, organic, the novel slowly grows into a flourishing, marvelous tale of hardship, of filaments of history that bind generations of people, of mistakes made, of magic discovered, of acceptance and redemption—of books, connections, time.)

The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto, Mitch Albom (Author of “Tuesdays with Morrie,” Albom uses Music as the narrator of this tale/fable/magical realism story about the world’s greatest singer and guitarist, Frankie Presto. Born under tragic circumstances, Frankie has people along the way who help him, in many ways unbeknownst to Frankie, achieve a life filled with music and his one true love, Aurora. The book is an homage to music and love but also a morality tale, how we influence people (here, Frankie saves six lives with his guitar strings) and how others influence or cause changes in the directions of our lives. Albom inserts short conversations with real musicians, e.g., Tony Bennett, Lyle Lovett, and others, who are “interviewed” about their relationship with Frankie and what he meant to them. Creative, emotional, one has to suspend belief at times, reminding me in parts of Forrest Gump and his encounters with famous people/events as he goes through life.)

Memory Wall: Stories, Anthony Doerr (Some of the most beautiful, heart-wrenching, deeply moving short stories I’ve read. Each story revolves around an aspect of memory, whether the slow loss of reality because of dementia, memories of orphans during World War II by the only surviving child as she reaches old age, memories of parents who have recently died by a young girl who moves to Lithuania to live with her grandfather, memories of a land that is soon covered by the waters when the Three Gorges dam is build. How memories are remembered, in fragments, in the present, in our deepest silences, through others listening to them. We die our third and last death when the last person who knew us as a child dies–then, the memories of us die, too.)

Maps of our Spectacular Bodies, Maddie Mortimer (Lia is dying of cancer. Her body takes over the narrative of her life, the bombardment of cancer cells, the pouring in of chemotherapy, the discrete, secretive, hidden cells spreading, spreading. Lia’s daughter, Iris, is four years old when her mother is first diagnosed with cancer. As the cancer returns and spreads over the years, we learn more of Lia’s backstory of growing up in vicarage with very religious parents, an older boyfriend, Mathew, and her current husband, Harry. The “maps” of Lia’s body are narrated by parts of her body, sometimes internally, other times by some unknown third person or mind or imagination. Non-linear, the use of various fonts and characters (Dove is her mother, Gardener is her husband, Yellow is her daughter, Fossil is Matthew), the flow of the book becomes like following a map or discovering new places. The ties between mother and daughter (and also between Lia and her mother, Anne) are central with flashbacks to Lia’s old boyfriend to create better understanding of the key character. An unusual approach, yet imaginative and challenging. The book was long-listed for Booker Prize.)

Midwives, Chris Bohjalian (Intriguing view of the world of midwifery in the 1980s. A mother dies during home-birth but the baby is saved by a caesarian section performed by Sybil, the mid-wife, an untrained medical professional. The story is narrated by the mid-wife’s fourteen-year-old daughter, supplemented by Sybil’s entries in her personal notebooks: the birth, the hiring of an attorney for possible charges (Murder? Manslaughter? Involuntary manslaughter? Practicing medicine without a license?), trial preparation, the family’s life before and after the trial. Bohjalian explores the depths of emotions about home births and mid-wives, especially by the medical establishment and those who believe that every birth should take place in a hospital. Good read.)

Breasts and Eggs, Mieko Kawakami (A tale of three women (two sisters and one of their daughters) in Osaka and Tokyo, navigating life as women in twenty-first century Japan, narrated by the younger sister, at age twenty and then almost ten years later. The backdrop of growing up poor and raised by a single mother and grandmother, the disappearance of the father, and having lackluster jobs, is the setting for an exploration of being a woman, both physical and mental, with a strong focus on physical appearance (the older sister, in the first half of the book, is exploring getting breast implants) and why women desire to have children (the younger sister, in the second half of the book, is obsessed with donor-sperm or artificial insemination, which was unusual or not available to single women). The detailed writing is good, but the two halves of the book are almost unconnected, with neither resolving the open issues. Unusual subjects and clearly deep research, an award-winning short essay the basis of the novel, I didn’t feel as if the women reconciled their lives or their sometimes haunting questions about womanhood.)

Fresh Water for Flowers, Valerie Perrin (Perrin’s first novel translated into English, the narrator and protagonist is Violette Toussaint, a cemetery keeper. Her life is filled with tragedy (having been a foster child, marrying her first love without knowing his true character, barely surviving the death of their child) but she has a kind and warm soul, resilience, and heart. She befriends those whose loved ones have died and been interred in the cemetery, in a small town in Burgundy, France, along with the funeral directors, the grave diggers, the Catholic priest, and the animals of the cemetery. Her life is solitary, her grief profound, but she is a light that draws others around her, even as she bears her own burdens. A gentle, soft, at times surprising story, this novel caresses the reader, bearing witness to relationships, friendships, and loves won and lost.)

Museum of Contemporary Art, Lisbon, Portugal

Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie (Reread: children born at the stroke of midnight on day of partition of India and Pakistan supposedly have magic powers and a “twin”, i.e., the new country. A swirl of facts, myths, history, and story-telling, Rushdie’s novel, narrated by Saleem Sahid, the most “midnight” of the midnight’s children, who can hear all the other children in his mind, is complicated and messy, but fascinating. Booker Prize and Booker best book in 25 years.)

The House of Broken Angels, Luis Alberto Urrea (A multi-generational Mexican family gathers to mourn the matriarch’s death and celebrate Big Angel’s (her oldest son) birthday. A story of immigrants from Tijuana to San Diego, some who succeeded in life, others who drifted, but always family crowded together. Big Angel is the spoke of the wheel, the father and grandfather, uncle and great-uncle. Little Angel, his half-brother, part white/part Mexican, is an outsider but finally connects with his brother at the raucous and over-the-top birthday celebrations. Urrea writes of family in all its permutations, with humor and compassion, helping us see our;  own relationships within our unique family circumstances.)

Mad Honey, Jodi Picoult (Family; domestic abuse; genetic predisposition to violence; murder; mothers; beekeeping; transgender. Olivia McAfee moved back to her home town in New Hampshire with her young son to escape an abusive relationship and to take over her father’s beekeeping business. Ten years later, young Lily and her mother move to the same town to escape her father and to start life again. Lily and Olivia’s son, Asher, are immediately attracted to one another. Not quite a teenage love story as they both have secrets they are not yet willing or trusting enough to share. Picoult weaves her typical seemingly diverse stories, here, beekeeping (and how much we learn) and love and secrets, what we keep private, to save ourselves and others, what we slowly feel we can share. Lily’s alleged murder by Asher turns all their lives upside down, as theories run wild about what happens, friendships are tested, Olivia must confront her past and what she has withheld from her son. Surprising with twists that jolt the people who thought they knew one another well. Moving, informative, pure Picoult.)

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, Maggie O’Farrell (Esme and her sister, Kitty, are born in India but eventually move back to Scotland with their parents. Esme is unruly, independent, not wanting to fit into the mold of what is expected of young women, seeking to secure a husband. She is eventually put into an insane asylum, for reasons that are not entirely clear, until sixty years later when it is closing and her grand-niece, Iris, is notified that she is named next of kin. Toggling among several voices (without chapters and often no quotations, so sometimes difficult to understand who is speaking), the novel follows Iris’s discovery of her great-aunt, her grandmother, Kitty’s, secrets, and Esme’s rediscovery of life outside the insane asylum. We sometimes are hurt the most by the people we love the most. Good character development and arresting story.)

Demon Copperhead, Barbara Kingsolver ( Inspired by Charles Dickens and “David Copperfield,” Kingsolver writes of foster children living in the southern Appalachia area of Virginia. Damon Fields (better known as Demon Copperhead), is a ten-year-old boy who lives with his single mother, poor, addicted, uneducated, like so many of their friends and neighbors in their rural community. His mother marries, then overdoses and dies, leaving Demon with a mean, unwilling step-father and soon life in foster homes for the “hard-to-place” boys. Drug addiction, family and friends who die too young, children raised by relatives or foster parents or on their own. The system fails these children and their caretakers as drug addiction rages, the underbelly of their community. A story too common, making wrong choices because he doesn’t have the support for help with the right ones or the emotional maturity to understand what he needs, Demon is resilient. His story (and that of his friends) is all too real in America, with only some hope for those lucky enough to find within themselves and those few mentors or others who take a personal interest in getting them to adulthood.)

Nightcrawling, Leila Mottley (Kiara and her brother, Marcus, are living in the family’s Oakland apartment, after father died, mother incarcerated. A story of youth and disillusionment, of family abandonment, of a young girl struggling to save her neighbor’s nine-year-old son, Trevor, from social services, to recreate the relationship she had with Marcus as children, to survive. Without education or skills, she turns to the streets (“nightcrawling” or prostitution) and gets involved in a police sex ring. Mottley’s writing is lyrical, poetic, frank and harsh. She captures the desperation of mere survival, or children having to become adults before they’re ready, of making choices that aren’t really choices.)

The Wise Women, Gina Sorell (Wendy Wise, mother to Barb and Clementine, was single mother and advice columnist when girls were young. The girls are now grown and in the middle of life changes, Clementine’s husband allegedly lied to her about using her money for down payment for house (instead he used it to try different start-ups), so Clementine and son Jonah may be out on the street. Barb’s architectural practice is challenging as she tries to incorporate new ideas while gentrifying parts of Brooklyn. The three women keep their secrets until crisis-level hits and Wendy decides the girls need her. The theme is learning to adapt and change, to understand your strengths and weaknesses, to forgive, to handle relationships. The book is light and quick read.)

In an Instant, Suzanne Redfearn (A terrible automobile accident, heroic actions, two deaths, different understandings and perspectives of what happened. Is there betrayal? Do you go into instinct mode when things happen “in an instant” becoming or doing other than what we think we’d do in these situations? Do we favor blood over friends? How do we reconcile seemingly bad conduct with who the person was we thought we knew? The narrator is Finn, who died in the accident, as she hovers about what is happening, trying to help, struggling with these questions, envious of those continuing life but accepting of her death. Good questions to contemplate.)

The Last Bookshop in London: A Novel of World War II, Madeline Martin (A novel of bookstores and an homage to reading set in World War II London, the Blitz’s nightly bombing, the women whose children are taken to the country for safety, or who decide to join the military, or who are finding their way on their own. Best friends Grace and Viv move to London in 1939 to start their “best life” only to be immersed in the war. Finding their way, blossoming in ways they never believed possible, gathering friends amidst the dangers and horrors of war, Martin weaves together how reading can be a comfort, a solace, a connection even as destruction is all around.)

Bookseller outside the world’s oldest bookstore, Lisbon, Portugal

Lessons in Chemistry, Bonnie Garmus (1960s, women in science almost upheard of, but Elizabeth Zott defies the odds with doubters along the way. She falls in love with Calvin, a world-renown scientist but others think she is riding his coattails. He dies, she is pregnant, unwed, not much money or family to help. She unwittingly becomes a famous cooking show, although Elizabeth doesn’t feel like she’s met her potential. What her show does, though, is teach women to defy the odds, to challenge themselves and the male-dominated culture to think differently about themselves. Good read.)

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