Friday, January 10, 2014

Books to warm your imagination

Ah, the power of a good book. It can transport you to faraway places and faraway times -- a good thing when you are stuck inside for days on end dealing with freezing cold temperatures and snow. Or even if you are in sunny California and can't remember what cold and snow feel like.

A writer myself (though not of books), I am constantly in awe of those who create eloquent long-form prose. Which is why I like to take the time every month or so to praise those books and authors I have recently enjoyed -- and share them with all of you.

If there is a book you recently enjoyed, please share it via a Comment.

Herewith, a list of what I've been reading lately -- divided into Fiction and Nonfiction and listed alphabetically by author, with a link to a lengthier description on Amazon. (To see previous book recommendations, click here.)


The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton. I normally shy away from books that win literary awards, especially British literary awards such as the Man Booker (I have become increasingly less fond of British literature and humor over the years), and even more so if the book is over 800 pages. But for some reason, despite all that, I decided to check out The Luminaries, a novel set in a remote part of New Zealand in the 1860s during the gold rush there. And I confess, I was spellbound by Catton's prose/story about a series of mysterious yet connected events involving a fortune in gold, the death of a lonely prospector, the disappearance of another, and the lives of 13 men and one prostitute connected to all three, told from several different angles or narrators. That is until about 700 pages in when I felt Catton lost patience and hurriedly wrapped things up, in to me an unsatisfactory way. However, some (or all) of you may disagree and be fine with how she concluded the tale, which is why I decided to include the book here. (And if any of you do read The Luminaries, all 830 or so pages of it, please let me know what you thought of it.)

The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion by Fannie Flagg. Who would have thought watching Match Game all those years ago that Fannie Flagg would become a beloved, best-selling author? Though I guess I shouldn't be that surprised as she was always funny and clever. But as we (I) know, being funny and clever does not necessarily translate into being a great author. And I think Flagg is a great author. Loved The All-Girl Filling Station's Last Reunion (as I did her other books). And I learned something, too -- about early female aviators, the WASPs (Women Airforce Service Pilots), who helped America's World War II effort. At the risk of sounding cliche, I laughed and I cried (albeit mostly to myself) all throughout this tale of a kindly but much put-upon Alabama homemaker (and her domineering mother) set in the mid-2000s and a family of pioneering female aviators from Wisconsin in the 1930s and 1940s. Highly recommend (albeit mostly to women).

Queen’s Gambit by Elizabeth Fremantle. Philippa Gregory, Hilary Mantel, and Tudor fans will (or should) enjoy this novel about Henry VIII's sixth and final wife, Katherine Parr, who I, at least, knew nothing about. Fremantle has clearly done her research -- and gives us a glimpse into life at court during Henry VIII's final years and the political and religious intrigue(s) that went on during that turbulent time.

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert. I could not stomach Eat, Pray, Love, and it was only at the insistence and promise of several people whose opinion I trust reassuring regarding books that "this book is totally different" and well worth a read that I checked it out. And I am glad I did. It may well be -- or become -- one of my favorite reads of 2014, and it's only January. That's how much I enjoyed it. Though maybe "enjoy" is not the right word, as I found much of the book sad and depressing. But Gilbert's prose are so eloquent, and her story of botanist/heiress Alma Whittaker so compelling and inspiring, I could not put the book down. (I particularly enjoyed the section about Roger the dog.) As for how to describe The Signature of All Things, you could say it is a book about mid-19th century botany and botanists, which it is. You could also call it a novel of adventure and self discovery. Which it also is. You could also call it the tale of a dysfunctional family and of love and loss. And it is those things, too. It is all those things, and more.

The Case of the Love Commandos: A Vish Puri Novel by Tarquin Hall. I am big fan of Tarquin Hall's Vish Puri, Most Private Investigator, series, which is set in and around India. The Case of the Love Commandos is the fourth book in this series of light-hearted detective novels or mysteries. If you have not read the previous three novels, I suggest you start with The Case of the Missing Servant, the first one, though it is not essential. (Hall writes the books in such a way that you do not need to have read the previous ones to enjoy the latest, but it helps if you have.) This book tells the tale of the Love Commandos, a group of young Indians fighting the rigid Indian caste system by helping lovers who hail from different castes to marry in secret. Though mainly it is the tale of one specific couple being helped by the Love Commandos and the mystery surrounding the disappearance of the young man, a bright university student from the Dalet or "untouchable" caste who has fallen in love with and plans to marry a Brahmin girl (though there is also an entertaining side story regarding the detective abilities of Vish Puri's mother). Cleverly written and highly entertaining.

The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak. The often funny, often sad/tragic story of two young women (and their families), one Turkish, living in Turkey, and one Armenian-American, whose father's family fled Turkey during the Armenian Genocide of the early Twentieth Century. Beautifully (and wryly) written, Shafak made me want to visit Turkey (more than I had already) and explore its streets and bazaars and food. (The only downside: now I can't get this song out of my head.)


This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral – plus plenty of valet parking! – in America’s Gilded Capital by Mark Leibovich. An often fascinating, often funny, often painful look at political life in the nation's capital, with a heavy focus on the late Tim Russert, host of Meet the Press, and the media who live in and cover the political goings on in Washington, D.C. Recommended for political junkies.

Mao’s Last Dancer by Li Cunxin. If there was ever a book that made me glad to be an American or have grown up in this country -- as opposed to China -- in the 1970s, this is it! That is a rather self-centered view to take, but it's what I kept thinking as I waded through the first third of so of this memoir by Li Cunxin, who went from a life of severe hardship in rural China to becoming a principal dancer in the Houston Ballet after defecting to the United States in 1981 during a stint as a guest dancer/exchange student at the Houston Ballet, causing an international incident (that I don't remember despite being into ballet at the time). A fascinating story, which you don't have to be a balletomane to appreciate (though if you have taken ballet classes or ever aspired to being a ballerina, you will appreciate the book even more).

No comments: