Every year, Marilyn Herbert puts together a reading list of the books she’s either already read or is most excited about reading right now, some of which will turn into full Bookclub-in-a-Box discussion guides later in the year. (We’ve already started working on Room, which will feature a full-length interview with Emma Donoghue, including material that didn’t make it into our blog post earlier this month!)
So have a look, and please share your thoughts in the comments below. Which of these books would you most like to read with your book club? What other books are you reading right now?
Room (Emma Donoghue)
Emma Donoghue’s latest novel, loosely based on an actual abduction case, tells the story of resilient young Jack and his devoted Ma, who have been held captive in an 11’x11’ room since before Jack was born — he has never seen a real tree, or met another person other than Ma and “Old Nick,” their captor. Room is written from Jack’s point of view, using his own language, letting the reader see the world from his innocent, sheltered, uniquely fresh perspective.
One day, Jack and Ma devise a plan to escape to “Outside” where Ma tells him there are actual people and places like the ones he sees on TV. How and when they escape is a tense piece of storytelling, leading into the equally difficult issue of Ma and Jack’s integration back into the outside world.
Freedom (Jonathan Franzen)
This novel tells the story of the dysfunction found in pursuit of American ideals of freedom. Patti is the quintessential version of a person presented with the most fundamental forms of freedom in society: wealth, education, athletic prowess, good looks, and a natural adeptness at being popular. Patti’s husband Walter, on the other hand, spends an entire lifetime fighting for others’ freedom, including the emancipation of his mother from a torturous life with her husband, and the liberation of wildlife from a destructive human race.
Franzen explores how despite — or perhaps because of — this high degree of personal freedom, Patti and people like her (who don’t have to work for their freedom) self-destruct just as much as those without the same opportunities simply handed to them. The concept of freedom and how it is sought, achieved, and handled are all explored in the novel. Adultery, alcoholism, teenage love, rape, and love triangles are all here and taken so seriously that each character is in serious danger of implosion.
The Finkler Question (Howard Jacobson)
(Via Amazon:) Julian Treslove, a professionally unspectacular former BBC radio producer, and Sam Finkler, a popular Jewish philosopher, writer, and television personality, are old school friends. Despite a prickly relationship and very different lives, they’ve never lost touch with each other, or with their former teacher, Libor Sevcik.
Dining together one night at Sevcik’s apartment—the two Jewish widowers and the unmarried Gentile, Treslove — the men share a sweetly painful evening, reminiscing on a time before they had loved and lost, before they had prized anything greatly enough to fear the loss of it. But as Treslove makes his way home, he is attacked and mugged outside a violin dealer’s window. Treslove is convinced the crime was a misdirected act of anti-Semitism, and in its aftermath, his whole sense of self will ineluctably change.
The Finkler Question is a funny, furious, unflinching novel of friendship and loss, exclusion and belonging, and the wisdom and humanity of maturity.
Great House (Nicole Krauss)
(Via Google Books:) For 25 years, a solitary American novelist has been writing at the desk she inherited from a young poet who disappeared at the hands of Pinochet’s secret police; one day a girl claiming to be the poet’s daughter arrives to take it away, sending the writer’s life reeling. Across the ocean, in the leafy suburbs of London, a man caring for his dying wife discovers, among her papers, a lock of hair that unravels a terrible secret. In Jerusalem, an antiques dealer slowly reassembles his father’s study, plundered by the Nazis from Budapest in 1944.
Connecting these stories is a desk of many drawers that exerts a power over those who possess it or give it away. As the narrators of Great House make their confessions, the desk takes on more and more meaning, and comes finally to stand for all that has been taken from them, and all that binds them to what has disappeared. Great House is a story haunted by questions: What do we pass on to our children, and how do they absorb our dreams and losses? How do we respond to disappearance, destruction, and change? Nicole Krauss has written a soaring, powerful novel about memory struggling to create a meaningful permanence in the face of inevitable loss.
The Paris Wife (Paula McLain)
Paula McLain’s charming, well-researched novel tells the tale of 28-year-old Hadley Richardson, who meets the young Ernest Hemingway in the 1920s while he is confident but still unknown and eager for someone to believe in his budding talent as a writer. The two eventually marry, and when they move from Chicago to Paris, their circle of soon-to-be-legendary artist friends grows: they share bottles of absinthe with F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda, debate art and literature with Gertrude Stein, borrow books from Sylvia Beach’s still-famous Shakespeare & Company bookstore, and seek advice from Ezra Pound.
Through the author’s research of the many biographies, memoirs, and archived letters from the time (including Heminway’s own A Moveable Feast), McLain has written a wholly believable recreation of how the rise of Hemingway’s career coincided with the fall of his hopeful first marriage. While it describes the many alcohol-fueled meetings that took place at cafes like the Closerie des Lilas, McLain takes creative license by describing how the very devoted, traditional Hadley must have felt trying to keep her marriage in tact when she was “surrounded by triangles — freethinking, free-living lovers willing to bend every convention to find something right or risky or liberating enough.” (Read the full Bookclub-in-a-Box review here.)
A Farewell to Arms (Ernest Hemingway – published just before he married Hadley)
(Via enotes:) A Farewell to Arms is a semi-autobiographical novel written by Ernest Hemingway concerning events during the Italian campaigns during the First World War. The book, which was first published in 1929, is a first-person account of American Frederic Henry, serving as a lieutenant (“Tenente”) in the ambulance corps of the Italian Army. The title is taken from a poem by 16th-century English dramatist George Peele.
A Farewell to Arms works on two literary levels. Firstly it is a story concerning the drama and passion of a doomed romance between Henry and British nurse, Catherine Barkley. But secondly, it also skilfully contrasts the meaning of personal tragedy against the impersonal destruction wrought by the Great War. Hemingway deftly captures the cynicism of soldiers, the futility of war, and the displacement of populations. Although this was Hemingway’s bleakest novel, its publication cemented his stature as a modern American writer.
The Sun Also Rises (Ernest Hemingway – published just before he divorced Hadley)
(Via enotes:) Ernest Hemingway’s first novel, The Sun Also Rises, remains, as F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “a romance and a guidebook.” It also became, in the words of critic Sibbie O’Sullivan, “a modern-day courtesy book on how to behave in the waste land Europe had become after the Great War.” The Sun Also Rises successfully portrays its characters as survivors of a “lost generation.” In addition, the novel was the most modern an American author had yet produced, and the ease with which it could be read endeared it to many. But for all its apparent simplicity, the novel’s innovation lay in its ironic style that interjected complex themes without being didactic. Generally, the novel is considered to be Hemingway’s most satisfying work.
The material for the novel resulted from a journey Hemingway made with his first wife, Hadley Richardson, and several friends to Pamplona, Spain, in 1925. Among them was Lady Duff Twysden, a beautiful socialite with whom Hemingway was in love (the inspiration for the novel’s Lady Brett Ashley). There was also a Jewish novelist and boxer named Harold Loeb (source of Robert Cohn) whom Hemingway threatened after learning that he and Lady Duff had had an affair. Lady Duff’s companion was a bankrupt Briton (like Mike Campbell). The trip ended poorly when Lady Duff and her companion left their bills unpaid. The ending of the novel is only slightly more tragic, yet it recovers those precious values which make life livable in a war-wearied world: friendship, stoicism, and natural grace.
Free World (David Bezmozgis)
(Via the author’s site:) In the summer of 1978, Brezhnev sits like a stone in the Kremlin, Israel and Egypt are inching towards peace, and in the bustling, polyglot streets of Rome, strange new creatures have appeared: Soviet Jews who have escaped to freedom through a crack in the Iron Curtain. Among the thousands who have landed in Italy to secure visas for new lives in the West are the members of the Krasnansky family — three generations of Russian Jews.
Here is Samuil, an old Communist and Red Army veteran, who reluctantly leaves the country to which he has dedicated himself body and soul; Karl, his elder son, a man eager to embrace the opportunities emigration affords; Alec, his younger son, a carefree playboy for whom life has always been a game; and Polina, Alec’s new wife, who has risked the most by breaking with her old family to join this new one. Together, they will spend six months in Rome — their way station and purgatory. They will immerse themselves in the carnival of emigration, in an Italy rife with love affairs and ruthless hustles, with dislocation and nostalgia, with the promise and peril of a better life. Through the unforgettable Krasnansky family, David Bezmozgis has created an intimate portrait of a tumultuous era.
Being Polite to Hitler (Robb Forman Dew)
(Via the publisher:) After teaching and raising her family for most of her life, Agnes Scofield realizes that she is truly weary of the routine her life has become. But how, at 51, can she establish an identity apart from what has so long defined her?
Often eloquent, sometimes blunt, and always full of fire, The Scofield clan is not a family that keeps its opinions to itself. As much as she’d like to, Agnes can no more deflect their adamant advice than she can step down as their matriarch. And despite her newfound freedom, Agnes finds herself becoming even more entangled in the family web. She shepherds her daughter-in-law, Lavinia, who moves in with her own two daughters to escape her husband’s drinking. She puts out fires, smoothes fraying nerves, and, stunned as anyone, receives a marriage proposal. Having expected her life to become smaller, Agnes is amazed to see it grow instead.
Robb Forman Dew intricately weaves together personal and family life into a richly wrought tapestry of the country in the 1950s and beyond. Being Polite to Hitler is a moving, frank, and surprising portrait of post-World War II America.
State of Wonder (Ann Patchett)
(Via Amazon:) Dr. Marina Singh, a research scientist with a Minnesota pharmaceutical company, is sent to Brazil to track down her former mentor, Dr. Annick Swenson, who seems to have all but disappeared in the Amazon while working on what is destined to be an extremely valuable new drug, the development of which has already cost the company a fortune. Nothing about Marina’s assignment is easy: not only does no one know where Dr. Swenson is, but the last person who was sent to find her, Marina’s research partner Anders Eckman, died before he could complete his mission. Plagued by trepidation, Marina embarks on an odyssey into the insect-infested jungle in hopes of finding her former mentor as well as answers to several troubling questions about her friend’s death, the state of her company’s future, and her own past.
Once found, Dr. Swenson, now in her seventies, is as ruthless and uncompromising as she ever was back in the days of Grand Rounds at Johns Hopkins. With a combination of science and subterfuge, she dominates her research team and the natives she is studying with the force of an imperial ruler. But while she is as threatening as anything the jungle has to offer, the greatest sacrifices to be made are the ones Dr. Swenson asks of herself, and will ultimately ask of Marina, who finds she may still be unable to live up to her teacher’s expectations.
A Visit from the Goon Squad (Jennifer Egan)
This postmodern novel earned Jennifer Egan the 2011 Pulitzer Prize, and was longlisted for the U.K.’s prestigious Orange Prize. Spanning five decades in southern California, the story interweaves the classic with the currently popular while looking at themes of growing up, discovering art, and falling in love. Describing her own book, Egan calls it a merger TV’s The Sopranos and Proust’s classic epic Remembrance of Things Past.
Each chapter has its own unique voice, mood, and style, and ranges from satire to tragedy — one chapter is even comprised of a PowerPoint presentation. Collectively, the interlocking stories explore the ironic nonsense of postmodernism, and of growing up and growing old in a culture corroded by technology and marketing. It is truly a book for our times.
Let the Great World Spin (Colum McCann)
In the summer of 1974, the atmosphere in Manhattan was hot, serious, and full of death and betrayal. Coming off the heels of Watergate and Vietnam, New Yorkers, like much of America, were in an emotionally precarious state. The remarkable feat of a man tightrope walking between the newly built Twin Towers becomes the touchstone for 10 stories of varied and intense lives.
They include a street priest, a heroin-addicted mother-daughter team of prostitutes, mothers mourning deceased soldiers, and a Park Avenue judge. Occasionally converging, these New Yorkers send out ripples into each other’s lives. The reader becomes inspired by the interconnectedness of humans within the same city who, like many of us, just stumble along, trying not to trip, and who are unaware of those we touch along the way.
The Beauty of Humanity Movement (Camilla Gibb)
Hung was born the ninth child of an unloving mother in Hanoi, and was sent away from home early in life. Struggling through a time of war, Hung scraped by making pho (a kind of all-inclusive soup). At the same time, he struggled to find new ways of feeding his neighbours, especially during a time when people were so hungry they ate their own lice. Hung’s pho shop becomes the anchor for the “Beauty of Humanity Movement,” a society begun by a group of artists who challenge the cultural and political path the country is taking.
Gibb tells the story as a triple-stranded narrative exploring Hung’s memory of the movement’s past and the people who died in pursuit of it; it includes Maggie’s search for proof of the life that her father led before her; and Tu’s individual version of Vietnam history that he has sanitized for his Western tour groups. These three pieces are braided into a collective work of hope amidst adversity as we follow characters who do what they can to help their fellow human beings.
The Imperfectionists (Tom Rachman)
Tom Rachman has trained and worked as a journalist and so his first novel, about an English-language newspaper located in Rome, rings very true. The Imperfectionists is a series of independent chapters, each devoted to a different member of the newsroom and includes one fan. There are details which overlap and characters who interact, but on the whole, it is a book that is structurally simply a newspaper. As readers, we go from story to story.
Rachman has captured a view of the newsroom that newspaper readers would be largely unaware of, and offers a behind-the-scenes look at the private and professional lives of those who bring us our news.
Nikolski (Nicolas Dickner)
(Via Chapters:) This 2010 CBC Canada Reads–winning novel, intricately plotted and shimmering with originality, charts the curious and unexpected courses of personal migration, and shows how they just might eventually lead us to home.
In the spring of 1989, three young people, born thousands of miles apart, each cut themselves adrift from their birthplaces and set out to discover what — or who — might anchor them in their lives. They each leave almost everything behind, carrying with them only a few artefacts of their lives so far — possessions that have proven so formative that they can’t imagine surviving without them — but also the accumulated memories of their own lives and family histories.
If you haven’t read them yet, you should also try:
- City of Thieves (David Benioff)
- Not Me (Michael Lavigne)
- The Space Between Us (Thrity Umrigar)
- Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand (Helen Simonson)
- Cutting for Stone (Abraham Verghese)
- The Glass Room (Simon Mawer)
- Evelyn Waugh
- Somerset Maugham
- Graham Greene