A friend recently texted me, looking for a few book recommendations. After I texted back my current “short list” of favorites, I realized the request may fall under the heading of “careful what you ask for…”
I am a reader and always have been. In fact, when the first day of first grade came and went and I did not learn to read on that day, I was sorely disappointed and not at all sure I wanted to go back. Learning to read was my sole purpose in going to school.
Today I am one of those readers who likes to have a reading list or, better yet, a stack of books waiting, so I know what I’m going to read next. I get a little nervous if it seems I will finish one book without having another to pick up. Electronic readers have been an expensive boon for me. You can finish one book and immediately download another. And I’m embarrassed to say that I do.
Lately, I’ve had the pleasure of several good reads in a row, a few for one or the other of two book groups I participate in, others just for me. As I gathered them up to write this, I began to consider what makes a “good read.” I’m just offering three rules here. They aren’t exhaustive, but I think they are a good start.
Everyone seems to have read the 2015 Pulitzer Prize Winner for Fiction All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doer, about a young blind girl in Paris and a gifted orphan boy in Germany, growing up in the years leading up to and through WWII. They are leading meager, often lonely and always challenging lives before the war, but then are thrown into unthinkable circumstances that lead to unexpected acts of heroism.
I loved the characters, even the minor ones, some of them were charming and others unspeakably bad. I am not sure I would call this a war novel, though it’s set largely in wartime and the war plays a significant part. However, I thought it was about what makes a family (certainly not always blood), the obligations of friendship (life/death/survival) and the power of communication. Doer carefully alternates between the stories of Marie-Laure and Werner. There is enough detail and plot to bring them to life, but I never felt bogged down by it. The book covers a significant span of time, but Doer moves it along. I would describe his writing as tight, pushing the story (and the reader) forward.
One of my book groups read this, but the discussion focused largely on maybe the last third or even quarter of the novel. Doer does an interesting job of bringing his characters into the present and our discussion that morning trended to those points. However for me the journey of the two main characters was far more interesting.
Good book rule #1:
The author keeps the story moving forward rather than languishing in wordy description and unimportant detours.
Circling the Sun by Paula McClain is a biographical novel about Beryl Markham, a well-known horsewoman-turned-airplane pilot in Africa in the first half of the 20th century. I was anxious for this book’s release since I had read and loved a biography of Beryl Markham years ago, Straight on Til Morning by Mary S. Lovell, also a great read. As a pioneering aviator, Beryl Markham was the first woman to cross the Atlantic and the first person to fly from London to New York nonstop. (Paula McClain also wrote The Paris Wife about Ernest Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley.)
The Markhams emigrated from England to Kenya when Beryl was very young. Her father struggled to build a business as a horse breeder and trainer, but her mother never liked Kenya and abruptly returned to England. Beryl was left to be raised by her father and the local Kipsigis tribe who shared the land. Not surprisingly, Beryl grew to be a fiercely independent, resourceful young woman, one who loved Kenya, the natives, the land, the animals and the magical ways in which they all fit. She also loved and knew horses. But that’s the thumbnail version.
Beryl was part of the expatriate community in Kenya that also included Karen Blixson and Denys Finch Hatton (Remember Out of Africa?). Many had emigrated from England and other parts of western Europe in search of economic opportunity, adventure, or to escape their past. They were proper (Remember Karen and her white-gloved servants?) and held on to tradition in a setting that was anything but tame.
I would be the first to admit that this book is not Out of Africa, but McClain does a wonderful job of capturing the African landscape, the tenacity required to survive there, and a view of the English expat community. And then, of course, there is the story of Beryl Markham. She was young and totally unprepared for the life fate thrust at her (more than once). She had nowhere near the education or resources of Karen Blixen, but boy was she brave. She had no choice.
Good book rule #2:
You root for the characters. (Bonus points for biography, which I love.)
The same book group that read All the Light We Cannot See also selected Dead Wake by Erik Larson. We picked it because Larson would be speaking at the local junior college around the same time. That may have been serendipitous to the group, but I was disappointed. A factual accounting of the 1915 sinking of the Lusitania, no matter how heralded, seemed, at best, boring. I honestly have no interest in the details of ships or submarines. I had struggled through one of his earlier books, Devil in the White City, because of its Chicago setting. However, the point of this book group is to stretch our reading boundaries and delve into something we might not ordinarily choose, so I got the book.
I loved it! (And you probably saw that mini review coming.) Larson’s meticulous research and attention to detail made the diverse cast of characters on the Lusitania come alive. The ambitions of the German submarine commander, Walther Schweiger, were equally real. But I also loved the machinations of Winston Churchill, who as First Lord of the Admiralty of the British navy, was desperate for the US to enter the war at the same time as the Americans and President Woodrow Wilson were resisting every step of the way. And then there was the steamship line. I had to keep reminding myself that this was an actual event, a piece of history, and told by Larson in a factual way. The villains were real; I don’t think they were all German.
Good book rule #3:
You’re challenged to read something you would not normally choose, and it becomes a favorite.
So what did I recommend in reply to my friend’s text? I was pretty sure she was familiar with these three, but I had more to suggest. The Storied Life of AJ Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin about a small town book store owner is a reader’s delight, with a wide-ranging reading list woven into the story. The Art Forger by B. A Shapiro is a mystery with enough twists to keep you reading and an interesting view of the art world’s underside.
Two others are high on my list. Now that everyone is talking about visiting Cuba, Telex from Cuba by Rachel Kushner is set in an American enclave in 1950s Cuba, when the US was backing Batista and Castro was gathering rebels in the hills. Finally, Out to Lunch by Stacey Ballis is pure fun, especially for foodies, about a successful Chicago cook and caterer, with the requisite colorful cast of friends and suitors, reinventing herself after the sudden death of her business partner. If nothing else, read it for the amazing recipes.
Want more ideas? Check out http://www.whatmaggieread.com. (Disclaimer: It’s my daughter’s blog, which she has been writing for a few years. Her taste in books is a bit broader than mine, so if you are looking for ideas, she may have lots more!)
What do you think makes a good book? What are you reading? I can use all the recommendations I can get!
See you next time!