Favorite Reads of 2018:
Golden Hill: A Novel of Old New York by Francis Spufford.
Wonderful historical fiction set in 18th century New York, 30 years before the Revolution. A handsome young stranger named Richard Smith arrives in New York City from London with a promissory note for 1,000 pounds (a fortune, at that time) that he hopes to cash. Local gossip goes into overdrive. Is he an agitator? A spy? A thief on the lam? He refuses to say what he plans to do with his money, should he get it, or whether he intends to remain in the New World. He is shrouded in mystery. Still, he is clearly a gentleman. His appearance sets into a motion a catalogue of entertaining scenes and escapades. It will keep you turning those pages.
Francis Spufford is a fantastic storyteller—his characters and plot are entertaining and original to the extent that I couldn’t put the book down. It was such a pleasure to read his prose—absolutely loved it. I was completely engrossed by the story and the main character’s adventures with all kinds of surprising plot developments, wonderful characters, and a mystery that is compelling and immensely satisfying. A first-rate book that is a significant notch above the rest!
Forged in Crisis: The Power of Courageous Leadership in Turbulent Times by Nancy Koehn. (Non fiction)
This is an enthralling narrative that profiles five historical figures: polar explorer Ernest Shackleton, President Abraham Lincoln, legendary abolitionist Frederick Douglass, Nazi-resisting clergyman Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and environmental crusader Rachel Carson. Each faced a significant, at times, life-threatening crisis. Koehn shares their compelling/inspiring stories and the powerful lessons to be gleaned from their examples of leadership, courage, and perseverance. Most interestingly, Koehn shows how leaders are made from the inside out (reading, educating themselves, adapting, hungry to prepare in every way possible) and from the outside in (learning to respond in the best way during turbulent times). A most excellent and enlightening read!
The Woman in the Window by AJ Finn. (Fiction)
Thirty-eight-year-old Anna Fox lives alone in an upscale Manhattan home in New York. She spends her days and nights spying on her neighbors, while imbibing a lot of Merlot. We soon learn why. She’s agoraphobic and has not left her house in almost a year. When not peering out her window, she’s watching black and white movies of the Hitchcock sort. There’s certainly a nod to Hitchcock’s Rear Window in the setting and plot of the novel. (Be careful snooping. You might see something you’re not supposed to.) But to the reader’s delight, the author cleverly creates a spell-binding mystery of his own that will keep you guessing until you turn the last page.
Girls Auto Clinic Glove Box Guide by Patrice Banks. (Non fiction)
Seriously, everyone must have one of these in their glove compartments! When I first heard Patrice Banks on NPR, I knew that her book was going to be a bestseller! Banks is an auto mechanic, and the owner of a successful auto clinic, but there was a time when she avoided taking her own car in for routine maintenance. She says “I was afraid I was going to be taken advantage of and I was tired of feeling helpless.” Banks, who was working as an engineer at DuPont at the time, thought she’d feel more comfortable with a female technician. There was only one problem: “I couldn’t find a female mechanic near me, (there were only five in the whole country) so I decided to become one.”
So at the age of 32, she enrolled in night classes in automotive technology at a technical college. Eventually, she left her lucrative job at DuPont and opened Girls Auto Clinic repair center in Upper Darby, Pa., which is staffed by female mechanics. To make the shop more appealing and convenient for women, she also opened an adjoining manicure-pedicure and blowout salon. (Don’t you just love that?)
Potlikker Papers by John T. Edge.
When Lyndon Johnson was trying to pass the Civil Rights Act, he often tried to coerce opponents with stories of his beloved family cook, Zephyr Wright (a woman who had served as cook to Johnson’s family for more than three decades) but that did not protect her from suffering Jim Crow indignities. Lyndon, Lady Bird and Zephyr drove from Texas to Washington and as they passed through a small town, Lady Bird said, “Lyndon, would you mind stopping at the next gas station?” They stopped, used the bathroom, got back in the car, and drove on. About half a mile down the road, Zephyr asked, “Would you mind stopping by the side of the road?” She needed to relieve herself. “Goddamn it, we went to the gas station to relieve ourselves,” Johnson replied, frustrated, until Zephyr confessed, “Mr. President, they wouldn’t let me in.”
Edge’s book is a fascinating and elucidating narrative of the history of Southern food as seen through the experiences of black Americans from the early 20th C. to the present. It is an amazing food narrative that illumines history. Edge writes, “On the long march to equality, struggles over food reflected and affected change across the region and around the nation. Once thought retrograde, Southern food is now recognized as foundational to American cuisine. Southern cooks who labored in roadside shacks now claim white tablecloth temples where they cook alongside new immigrants. This ongoing ascent has been tumultuous. And it has powerfully driven national conversations about cultural identity.”
Edge’s book is a must-read, a kind of masterpiece of storytelling and history and food all rolled into one.
Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip Heath and Dan Heath (Non fiction)
Why did parents start looking for razor blades in apples that were given out on Halloween? Do you remember when you became aware of the amount of fat in a bucket of movie theater popcorn? Why was the Subway sandwich diet so successful? This enlightening book explores why some ideas are more memorable. The Heath brothers unearth six characteristics of “sticky” ideas and offer practical, entertaining, and fascinating information about how we can communicate more effectively. According to the authors, ideas aren’t born interesting, they’re made interesting. Ultimately, if you want to have a lasting impact and change your audience’s opinions or behavior, you’ve reached the Promised Land with this book.
Shrill by Lindy West (Non fiction)
What do you want to be when you grow up? How would you have answered that question when you were a kid? Lindy West, the brilliant, funny, and insightful author of Shrill, is my new author crush. She literally changed my view about so many things as I read her book. She was asked that same question as a kid, but her reminiscence is both hilarious and biting with a big dose of (from my perspective) “wow, I never thought of that before.” She writes: “Thanks to a glut of cultural messaging, I knew very clearly what I was not: small, thin, pretty, girlish, normal, weightless, Winona Ryder. But there was precious little media telling me what I was, what I could be. For me, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ was subsumed by a far more pressing question: ‘What are you?’” The awful truth, as West explains, was that fat women were portrayed as “sexless mothers, pathetic punch lines, or gruesome villains.” Don’t believe her? Wait till you read her list. Her book makes you think long and hard about how readily we discriminate against others, no matter their brilliance or delightful personalities. In fact, this book makes you think about a whole lot of important issues.
Movie Nights with the Reagans by Mark Weinberg (Non fiction)
I was never a Reagan fan. Not because I really understood trickle-down economics as a kid but because my family were Democrats. I tended to glom on to the stereotypes—that he wasn’t that smart, that Nancy was a shrew—stuff like that. So I was totally surprised and delighted when I started reading Movie Nights with the Reagans and discovered that there was this loving and wonderful couple that I didn’t know. This is an inside look at the Reagans through the eyes of Mark Weinberg, special advisor and press secretary to Reagan. Weinberg, along with a handful of others, was invited to spend Friday nights for eight years watching movies with the Reagans at Camp David. Each chapter reveals some wonderful little nugget about the President and Mrs. R, interesting cultural events that seem clearer in hindsight, as well as movie trivia. When you get to see someone closeup it’s hard not to see them as a whole person, in this case, a man with whom I too would have enjoyed watching Raiders of the Lost Ark, one of Reagan’s faves.
In Every Moment We Are Still Alive by Tom Malmquist (Fiction)
I picked this book up because I had read a couple of stunning reviews. But I’m not really sure how to describe it. Have you had that experience? You feel like you’ve just read something that you want to share, but as you begin explaining it you realize “no, that’s not quite what I mean.” So would someone please read it so I can have someone to talk about it with?
Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser (Non fiction)
Caroline Fraser has an affection for Laura Ingalls Wilder and her Little House books. But Fraser also is a realist and an incredible historian. She takes the reader on a remarkable page-turning journey, delving deep into the real world of life on the prairie. Of course the Ingalls, Pa and Ma and the rest of the clan, figure prominently, culminating in Laura’s own family and life beyond the Little House books. Full of mind-numbing stories of hardship, Fraser makes us vividly aware of the true history of the western migration and its impact on Native Americans, as well as the unbelievable challenge for those who moved west and tried to build a life there. And then there’s the story of when, how, and why Wilder wrote those beloved Little House books. Fraser’s work could be a class in and of itself, so gifted is she in sharing the history of America through the lens of Laura Ingalls Wilder.
Barking to the Choir by Gregory Boyle (Non fiction)
Gregory Boyle is a Jesuit priest who for the past 30 years has been running Homeboy Industries in L.A., a social enterprise that has helped thousands and thousands of gang members get job training and, more importantly, love and acceptance. His stories and take on life left me enthralled. Boy, do you want to meet this man and hear him speak! He writes, “We want to live our lives ‘out loud’—for all the world to see—not with the volume cranked high but with our lives speaking for themselves. Kinship is the game-changer.” It’s about our willingness to connect with each other, he says. “So the choir gets barked at and, collectively, we move beyond the mind we have….we find ourselves anchored in God’s dream come true.” I heart this book.
Born a Crime by Trevor Noah (Non fiction)
Brilliant, funny, informative, eye-opening, masterful….these are just some of the adjectives I would apply to this WOW of a book. Noah grew up in South Africa. He was born about five years before Apartheid officially ended. He’s a storyteller extraordinaire! More importantly, his own experiences captured so vividly in this memoir will forever enlighten your understanding of Apartheid, leave you marveling at the selflessness of his mother, and make you love Trevor Noah forever.
The Assistants by Camille Perri (Fiction)
Just in time for summer. This is the perfect beach read/one-day indulgence. Think 9 to 5…ish. It’s an office where the women (the “assistants”) embark on a plan to squeeze money out of the company and their less-than-wonderful bosses to pay off their college loans. Oh, and there’s a love interest–of course. It’s playful and thoroughly entertaining.
Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World—and Why Things are Better Than You Think by Hans Rosling
Read. This. Book! Read. This. Book! Read. This. Book! Read. This. Book! Read. This. Book! Read. This. Book! Read. This. Book! Read. This. Book! Read. This. Book! Read. This. Book!
Circe by Madeline Miller Fiction
Madeline Miller tackles one of the world’s most enduring stories from a new point of view. You probably remember Circe as the witch who turned men into swine and had a brief relationship with Odysseus. But in Homer, it never says WHY Circe is turning men into pigs. Historically, the implication has been that she’s doing it as a power trip or because she’s evil. But as Miller points out, that’s not borne out by the rest of Homer’s portrait, where she becomes very benevolent and helpful by the end. So Miller explores the WHY. What happened? And, oh boy, is it a great story!!! Miller says of her own portrayal: “I was drawn to Circe because she’s an example of someone who is born into a completely dysfunctional abusive family. I wanted the story to be about someone who’s trying to escape that and build themselves when they have nothing to build on. There are lots of people out there who have to do that. They have to remake themselves. Really, everyone has to do it a little bit.” This is a story of a woman finding her power and her voice! Top book club pick for me!
My Ex-Life by Stephen McCauley (Fiction)
David and Julie’s brief marriage ended when David came out as gay. But thirty years later they’re brought back together again when Julie and her second husband are divorcing, and their daughter isn’t moving forward with college applications. David’s business is counseling students on how to get into college, so Julie calls him for help. When they meet again, they find they still have a deep connection AND discover they need each other’s friendship and help. Julie’s home by the ocean is falling apart. She wants to buy out her husband’s half and can’t afford to. Everything is a mess in her life. And David is coming off of a failed relationship and feeling there’s an emptiness in his own life. But what they still have is this incredible friendship and trust that makes for a WONDERFUL story!!! There’s LOTS of funny moments, delightful scenes, and a great storyline that will make this one of your favorite reads this summer.
Something in the Water by Catherine Steadman (Fiction)
Something in the Water is a psychological thriller, and it follows the lives of Erin and Mark. Erin is a documentary filmmaker. She’s on the cusp of a career breakthrough, and she’s about to marry Mark who is a very successful investment banker. Things begin to go wrong when Mark loses his job unexpectedly. Cracks start to appear in their relationship, but they have a very strong relationship so they decide to continue as normal and go on their honeymoon which is already booked—a fantastic, first-class, five star holiday to Bora Bora—but when they get there they find something in the water. It’s not just what they find in the water but the decisions they subsequently make that end up changing both of their lives forever. It’s a wild, page-turning ride.
Lake Success by Gary Shtyngart (Fiction)
A brilliant book that captures the harsh realities and nuances of what it means to be an American in 2018 told through the compelling lives of characters who will both enrage you and hold up a mirror of our own flawed, vulnerable seeking selves.
Barry is the hedge fund anti-hero of the novel who has achieved it all, a degree from Princeton, despite his troubled upbringing, a multi-million dollar New York lifestyle, a beautiful wife, and, much to his dismay, a three-year-old son with severe autism.
The story opens with a desperate Barry running away from his life, tossing his phone and credit cards away and hopping on a bus to seek out the woman from his college days whom he now feels he should have never let get away. With references to Kerouac’s On the Road, Barry’s long bus odyssey reveals a vision of a modern America saturated by a Trump presidency, a personal reckoning, and an attempt to define what it means to live out the American Dream–that ever elusive and morphing promise.
Girl, Wash Your Face by Rachel Hollis (Non-fiction)
The subtitle of this book is “Stop believing the lies about who you are so you can become who you were meant to be,” and that’s what Rachel explores in 20 life-lessons she’s learned about how to overcome the falsehoods that left her feeling overwhelmed and unworthy and how she moved past them. With raw honesty and humor, she shares her personal stories along with practical and inspiring advice on how to combat the lies and misconceptions (that so many of us fall victim to) in order to live a life full of love, happiness, and success.
Two Girls Down, by Louisa Luna (Fiction)
Set aside enough time to finish Two Girls Down because it’s a page turner. It’s every parent’s worst nightmare; two young girls disappear during a quick shopping trip to Target. Their single mother, Jamie Brandt, is heartsick and distraught. Jamie’s aunt contacts Alice Vega, a famous California bounty hunter. Within 24 hours, Vega arrives in Schuylkill County, PA. She needs a partner, someone who knows the local scene. Max Caplan, “Cap”, is her choice—once a local cop, now a private detective. Cap’s a bit of a philosopher while Vega’s a solitary sort, very methodical with an almost sixth sense when it comes to finding missing people.
The pairing makes a great duo and the plot is riveting.
The Last Mrs. Parrish by Liv Constantin (Fiction)
This is a fun read about a manipulative woman who worms her way into the lives of a wealthy “golden couple” to achieve the privileged life she so desperately wants and feels she deserves. It’s a twisty, juicy novel with great characters, snappy dialogue, and one crazy ending. You won’t be able to stop once you get started.
Leadership in Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin (Nonfiction)
Goodwin will capture your heart and mind with her poignant and fascinating exploration of these four remarkable leaders: Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson. It’s captivating to see how the influences of their formative years played out as they grew into adults and politicians. Most striking, however, is at the core, each had a voracious appetite for learning, a willingness to change and grow, tremendous empathy for others, and a desire to truly make the world a better place.
Becoming by Michelle Obama (Memoir)
Ooh. This is just too good to put into words. Her husband said: “I love it because it faithfully reflects the woman I have loved for so long.” Barack adds he may be a bit biased, but added, “She also happens to be brilliant, funny, wise—one of a kind. This book tells her quintessentially American story.” Here are some of the adjectives I wrote down as I read her remarkable memoir: transparent, accessible, real, vulnerable, inspiring, smart, incredibly well-written, and moving. I could go on, but I have no doubt you will find find your own marvelous descriptors and agree that this book is one of the best of the year.
Traveling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa (Nonfiction)
Meow! Cat lovers will adore this adventure. It’s a simple but beautiful story told through the eyes of a cat and his owner as they journey throughout the land. But why must the owner of this cat find someone he can trust to take care of his beloved cat? That’s the mystery, and the answer will surely tug at your heart.
No Ordinary Life: Awakenings in the Final Days of Apartheid by Mary Ann Byron (Memoir)
When Mary Byron first arrived in Johannesburg, South Africa she was only 29 and newly married to a U.S. special agent whose job it was to protect the entire American community in the Western Cape Province during South Africa’s transition to democracy under Mandela. What had this midwestern girl signed up for? Madly in love and eager to join her husband Patrick on his mission, this independent career girl would suddenly find herself thrust into uncharted territory as she learned to navigate a marriage tinged with secrecy and struggled to find her own place in a volatile and beautiful foreign land. It’s an inspiring and engrossing book that captures what it was like to bear witness to one of the most important and significant times in the history of South Africa as Mandela came to power and South Africans were given the vote.
Her Best Kept Secret: Why Women Drink and How They Can Regain Control
by Gabrielle Glaser (Nonfiction)
Why do women drink so much these days and feel the need to hide it? It’s a really important question, and Glaser’s book offers an eye-opening exploration of the history of women and drinking (especially wine consumption), the lack of research even done on women and drinking, and the limited options women have when they feel they have a problem. She also provides research and examples of successful alternatives to AA. A very useful and enlightening book.
Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life by Amy Krouse Rosenthal (Nonfiction)
Rosenthal likes lists and loves to categorize her observations of her “ordinary” life into encyclopedic-like entries. But her content is much more insightful, funny, and endearing than any old encyclopedia entry. Rosenthal announces early on that her life has not been extraordinary in the least—she hasn’t “survived against all odds,” recovered from any addictions or been a genius. But I would suggest that her utterly charming and irresistible book is anything but ordinary and is sure to become one of your new faves. Pass it on. It’s the perfect gift.
Grant by Ron Chernow (Nonfiction)
A stunning biography of a fascinating man. No one does it better than Chernow. Great gift for a history lover. Now in paperback.