Music of a Life by Andrei Makine
A novel I couldn’t put down about a young, promising pianist getting ready for his first solo recital. It’s 1941 in Moscow and political circumstances drive him to disappear into the countryside before he can perform. He assumes a new identity that gets him through the war, painfully giving up the life of a pianist. A stunning story.
Barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas
Many may remember this author for his controversial novel The Slap, made into a TV mini-series. This is the novel that followed, the coming-of-age story about powerful swimming skills that destine a working-class boy for Olympic stardom. But things go wrong. Tsiolkas writes the narrative balancing alternating future and past story lines that converge with page-turning frenzy. I wrote about the book here in 2014.
A Horse Walks Into a Bar by David Grossman
A stand-up comedian works out his personal issues on a nightclub stage in Netanya, north of Tel Aviv. During the performance, the audience laughs at his bad jokes and taunts him to do better. Many leave while others, like us, stay for his riveting unraveling, as he tells the story of his life. David Grossman’s novel is not a funny book but a deeply moving and surprising one. Winner of the 2017 Man Booker International Prize.
The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng
Malaysian author Tan Twan Eng’s novel tells the story of a woman who faces her past as a survivor of a Japanese internment camp and of the gardener Aritomo who helps to heal and restore her dark memories. A many-layered story of past and present times. Complex and deeply satisfying.
The Sojourn by Andrew Krivak
A literary work of astonishing power and breadth in just under 200 pages that spans continents (America to the Hapsburg Empire) and centuries (1899 to 1972). The protagonist is an elite sharpshooter with the Austro-Hungarian army in WWI. A coming-of-age and a coming-home story. I wrote about it here in 2011.
The Housekeeper and The Professor by Yoko Ogawa
In this small, inviting novel, every day, a housekeeper arrives at the cottage of a 64-year-old math professor whose memory lasts precisely 80 minutes. No more. No less. And so every day the housekeeper must reintroduce herself to him. Their relationship revolves around the professor teaching her and her 10-year-old son not only the beauty of numbers but also eternal, unchangeable truths.
Galore by Michael Crummey
Crummey’s Galore provides delightful escape into another world that spans the late 18th through the early 20th centuries on the unmerciful shores of Newfoundland. I loved this book for all its odd people, their fishing lives and folkloric beliefs. Crummey creates them with an engaging, vivid narrative style that’s atmospheric, sometimes ghostly and filled with unforgettable storytelling.
Man Gone Down by Michael Thomas
Thomas’s debut novel won the prestigious IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 2009 and prior to that received high praise and places on top 10 lists. What I loved about the book is the intelligent, obstinate and vulnerable narrator at the center of this book and his impressive, discerning commentary. He’s a nameless middle-aged African-American on a downward spiral. A must read.
The Undertaking by Audrey Magee
A profound novel about newlyweds caught up in Berlin society and the Eastern Front during World War II. Stark, moving and intelligent in its portrayal of ordinary Germans waiting for the war to be over, with Germany as the ruling empire, Berlin at the center of the world. I wrote about the book here in 2014.
Winter by Christopher Nicholson
Absorbing historical fiction about the emotional tryst between 19th century British author Thomas Hardy, his second wife and the actress Gertrude Bugler. Using alternating perspectives of Hardy (who at the time was the wealthiest author in England), Gertrude and his wife, Nicholson seduces us with a lyric narrative about desires of the heart that never age. You can read more about it here.
The Grass Is Singing by Doris Lessing
Lessing’s first novel, originally published in 1950, takes place in Southern Rhodesia under white rule during the 20th century. The heroine Mary Turner, happy in her town life, feels society’s pressure to get married, and does so without fully considering the man and his remote farm to which she’s locking her fate. A devastating, memorable story of loneliness and racial strife in colonial South Africa.
The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
Dashiell Hammett’s enduring detective novel that influenced generations of mystery writers features the famous Detective Sam Spade. Published in 1930, it remains a page-turner with the mystery of a missing statuette at the center. Spade’s dynamic personality, however, is ultimately the draw. A great read, and always will be.
The Optimist’s Daughter by Eudora Welty
The characters in this southern classic grapple with the untimely death of Judge McKelva, notably his daughter, Laurel McKelva Hand, and the Judge’s young second wife, Fay. Welty profoundly captures Laurel’s shock, loneliness and courage as she tolerates her father’s crude, second wife behaving selfishly (and ignorantly) at the Judge’s deathbed and funeral. Welty won the Pulitzer Prize for this novel in 1973, and deservedly so.
Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann
Yes, seriously! A great beach read that roared onto the best-seller list in the 1960s for its scandalous story about ambitious women who get lost in a world of fame, pills and sex. The story’s feminist theme of identity and struggle to get ahead (and stay relevant) are disturbingly familiar. An engrossing book that celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2016.
Fat City by Leonard Gardner
A sad story that’s a classic sports novel about boxing and two men who hope in its promise to make them famous and financially secure. Slim in size and potent in the way it takes us inside the sport. Written in 1969 and Gardner’s only novel. Denis Johnson’s introduction alone is worth the price of the book.
The Patrick Melrose Novels by Edward St. Aubyn
Five novels based on the author’s privileged life that take us from a traumatic childhood though middle age to marriage and fatherhood. It’s a deeply damaged British journey of abuse, addiction and infidelity but not grim, rather smart, witty and riveting. At the end of each book, you’ll be glad you can keep reading into the next one. You won’t want to stop.
The Regeneration Trilogy by Pat Barker
Three books that have a firm place in the canon of WWI literature, the action predominantly outside the trenches, much of it dealing with shell shock of the soldiers. Barker’s characters include famous people in history, including the war poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. The Ghost Road won the 1995 Man Booker Prize. These are involving stories.
The Woman He Loved: The Story of the Duke & Duchess of Windsor by Ralph G. Martin
If you’re following The Crown on Netflix, you’ll enjoy this deep dive into the love life of Queen Elizabeth’s uncle who gave up the throne to marry Wallis Simpson. The dust jacket of my 1974 copy of the book says: “[It] provides the answers frankly and completely — answers that involve sex and politics and the all-too-human side of British royalty.” The book’s out of print, but you can find used copies on Amazon.
Half a Life by Darin Strauss
Darin Strauss writes with moving prose about when he was four weeks away from graduating high school and killed a girl who rode her bicycle in front of his car. This is a memoir I cannot forget not only for its painful openness but also for its call to stand beside someone who’s suffered an unimaginable tragedy — and to do so without trying to fix it or make the person feel better. Devastating and illuminating. I wrote about it here in 2011.
The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance by Edmund de Waal
How do you leave a life you’ve lived and known forever, when it’s taken away from you by war and revolution? That’s what I think of when this wonderful book comes to mind, about the 19th century Ephrussis banking family that’s compared to the Rothschilds in respect, fame and wealth. By the mid-20th century, however, they’ve dissolved to nothing. De Waal, the fifth generation inheritor of his ancestors’ netsuke collection, digs through family history to tell a riveting story.
Drinking: A Love Story by Caroline Knapp
This is an unforgettable memoir about the author’s struggle as a functioning alcoholic. One moment in particular comes to mind when the author, an award-winning journalist and Ivy League graduate, sees several bottles of wine placed on a dinner table with her friends and thinks, “That’s not enough,” meaning for herself. It’s a poignant, well-written story that became a best-seller. Her second memoir is Pack of Two: The Intricate Bond Between People and Dogs. She died at the young age of 42 in 2002.