Holiday 2017-2018 Reading List
Mrs. Osmond by John Banville
From the Man Booker Prize-winning author of The Sea, a dazzling and audacious new novel that extends the story of Isabel Archer, the heroine of Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady, into unexpected territory.
Isabel Archer is a young American woman, swept off to Europe in the late nineteenth century by an aunt who hopes to round out the impetuous but naïve girl’s experience of the world. When Isabel comes into a large, unexpected inheritance, she is finagled into a marriage with the charming, penniless, and—as Isabel finds out too late—cruel and deceitful Gilbert Osmond, whose connection to a certain Madame Merle is suspiciously intimate. On a trip to England to visit her cousin Ralph Touchett on his deathbed, Isabel is offered a chance to free herself from the marriage, but nonetheless chooses to return to Italy. Banville follows James’s story line to this point, but Mrs. Osmond is thoroughly Banville’s own: the narrative inventiveness; the lyrical precision and surprise of his language; the layers of emotional and psychological intensity; the subtle, dark humor. And when Isabel arrives in Italy—along with someone else!—the novel takes off in directions that James himself would be thrilled to follow.
Grant by Ron Chernow
Pulitzer Prize winner Ron Chernow returns with a sweeping and dramatic portrait of one of our most compelling generals and presidents, Ulysses S. Grant.
Ulysses S. Grant’s life has typically been misunderstood. All too often he is caricatured as a chronic loser and an inept businessman, or as the triumphant but brutal Union general of the Civil War. But these stereotypes don’t come close to capturing him, as Chernow shows in his masterful biography, the first to provide a complete understanding of the general and president whose fortunes rose and fell with dizzying speed and frequency.
Before the Civil War, Grant was flailing. His business ventures had ended dismally, and despite distinguished service in the Mexican War he ended up resigning from the army in disgrace amid recurring accusations of drunkenness. But in war, Grant began to realize his remarkable potential, soaring through the ranks of the Union army, prevailing at the battle of Shiloh and in the Vicksburg campaign, and ultimately defeating the legendary Confederate general Robert E. Lee. Along the way, Grant endeared himself to President Lincoln and became his most trusted general and the strategic genius of the war effort. Grant’s military fame translated into a two-term presidency, but one plagued by corruption scandals involving his closest staff members.
More important, he sought freedom and justice for black Americans, working to crush the Ku Klux Klan and earning the admiration of Frederick Douglass, who called him “the vigilant, firm, impartial, and wise protector of my race.” After his presidency, he was again brought low by a dashing young swindler on Wall Street, only to resuscitate his image by working with Mark Twain to publish his memoirs, which are recognized as a masterpiece of the genre.
With lucidity, breadth, and meticulousness, Chernow finds the threads that bind these disparate stories together, shedding new light on the man whom Walt Whitman described as “nothing heroic… and yet the greatest hero.” Chernow’s probing portrait of Grant’s lifelong struggle with alcoholism transforms our understanding of the man at the deepest level. This is America’s greatest biographer, bringing movingly to life one of our finest but most underappreciated presidents. The definitive biography, Grant is a grand synthesis of painstaking research and literary brilliance that makes sense of all sides of Grant’s life, explaining how this simple Midwesterner could at once be so ordinary and so extraordinary.
Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan
The daring and magnificent novel from the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of A Visit from the Goon Squad.
Anna Kerrigan, nearly twelve years old, accompanies her father to visit Dexter Styles, a man who, she gleans, is crucial to the survival of her father and her family. She is mesmerized by the sea beyond the house and by some charged mystery between the two men.
Years later, her father has disappeared and the country is at war. Anna works at the Brooklyn Naval Yard, where women are allowed to hold jobs that once belonged to men, now soldiers abroad. She becomes the first female diver, the most dangerous and exclusive of occupations, repairing the ships that will help America win the war. One evening at a nightclub, she meets Dexter Styles again, and begins to understand the complexity of her father’s life, the reasons he might have vanished.
With the atmosphere of a noir thriller, Egan’s first historical novel follows Anna and Styles into a world populated by gangsters, sailors, divers, bankers, and union men. Manhattan Beach is a deft, dazzling, propulsive exploration of a transformative moment in the lives and identities of women and men, of America and the world. It is a magnificent novel by the author of A Visit from the Goon Squad, one of the great writers of our time.
Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich
Louise Erdrich, the New York Times bestselling, National Book Award-winning author of LaRose and The Round House, paints a startling portrait of a young woman fighting for her life and her unborn child against oppressive forces that manifest in the wake of a cataclysmic event.
The world as we know it is ending. Evolution has reversed itself, affecting every living creature on earth. Science cannot stop the world from running backwards, as woman after woman gives birth to infants that appear to be primitive species of humans. Twenty-six-year-old Cedar Hawk Songmaker, adopted daughter of a pair of big-hearted, open-minded Minneapolis liberals, is as disturbed and uncertain as the rest of America around her. But for Cedar, this change is profound and deeply personal. She is four months pregnant.
Though she wants to tell the adoptive parents who raised her from infancy, Cedar first feels compelled to find her birth mother, Mary Potts, an Ojibwe living on the reservation, to understand both her and her baby’s origins. As Cedar goes back to her own biological beginnings, society around her begins to disintegrate, fueled by a swelling panic about the end of humanity.
There are rumors of martial law, of Congress confining pregnant women. Of a registry, and rewards for those who turn these wanted women in. Flickering through the chaos are signs of increasing repression: a shaken Cedar witnesses a family wrenched apart when police violently drag a mother from her husband and child in a parking lot. The streets of her neighborhood have been renamed with Bible verses. A stranger answers the phone when she calls her adoptive parents, who have vanished without a trace. It will take all Cedar has to avoid the prying eyes of potential informants and keep her baby safe.
A chilling dystopian novel both provocative and prescient, Future Home of the Living God is a startlingly original work from one of our most acclaimed writers: a moving meditation on female agency, self-determination, biology, and natural rights that speaks to the troubling changes of our time.
Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser
Millions of readers of Little House on the Prairie believe they know Laura Ingalls―the pioneer girl who survived blizzards and near-starvation on the Great Plains, and the woman who wrote the famous autobiographical books. But the true saga of her life has never been fully told. Now, drawing on unpublished manuscripts, letters, diaries, and land and financial records, Caroline Fraser―the editor of the Library of America edition of the Little House series―masterfully fills in the gaps in Wilder’s biography. Revealing the grown-up story behind the most influential childhood epic of pioneer life, she also chronicles Wilder’s tumultuous relationship with her journalist daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, setting the record straight regarding charges of ghostwriting that have swirled around the books.
The Little House books, for all the hardships they describe, are paeans to the pioneer spirit, portraying it as triumphant against all odds. But Wilder’s real life was harder and grittier than that, a story of relentless struggle, rootlessness, and poverty. It was only in her sixties, after losing nearly everything in the Great Depression, that she turned to children’s books, recasting her hardscrabble childhood as a celebratory vision of homesteading―and achieving fame and fortune in the process, in one of the most astonishing rags-to-riches episodes in American letters.
Spanning nearly a century of epochal change, from the Indian Wars to the Dust Bowl, Wilder’s dramatic life provides a unique perspective on American history and our national mythology of self-reliance. With fresh insights and new discoveries, Prairie Fires reveals the complex woman whose classic stories grip us to this day.
A Hundred Small Lessons by Ashley Hay
When Elsie Gormley leaves the Brisbane house in which she has lived for more than sixty years, Lucy Kiss and her family move in, eager to establish their new life. As they settle in, Lucy and her husband Ben struggle to navigate their transformation from adventurous lovers to new parents, taking comfort in memories of their vibrant past as they begin to unearth who their future selves might be. But the house has secrets of its own, and the rooms seem to share recollections of Elsie’s life with Lucy.
In her nearby nursing home, Elsie traces the span of her life—the moments she can’t bear to let go and the places to which she dreams of returning. Her beloved former house is at the heart of her memories of marriage, motherhood, love, and death, and the boundary between present and past becomes increasingly porous for both her and Lucy.
Over the course of one hot Brisbane summer, two families’ stories intersect in sudden and unexpected ways. Through the richly intertwined narratives of two ordinary, extraordinary women, Ashley Hay uses her “lyrical prose, poetic dialogue, and stunning imagery” (RTmagazine) to weave an intricate, bighearted story of what it is to be human.
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
In the early 1900s, teenaged Sunja, the adored daughter of a crippled fisherman, falls for a wealthy stranger at the seashore near her home in Korea. He promises her the world, but when she discovers she is pregnant–and that her lover is married–she refuses to be bought. Instead, she accepts an offer of marriage from a gentle, sickly minister passing through on his way to Japan. But her decision to abandon her home, and to reject her son’s powerful father, sets off a dramatic saga that will echo down through the generations.
Richly told and profoundly moving, Pachinko is a story of love, sacrifice, ambition, and loyalty. From bustling street markets to the halls of Japan’s finest universities to the pachinko parlors of the criminal underworld, Lee’s complex and passionate characters–strong, stubborn women, devoted sisters and sons, fathers shaken by moral crisis–survive and thrive against the indifferent arc of history.
The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott
A magnificent new novel from one of America’s finest writers―a powerfully affecting story spanning the twentieth century of a widow and her daughter and the nuns who serve their Irish-American community in Brooklyn.
On a dim winter afternoon, a young Irish immigrant opens the gas taps in his Brooklyn tenement. He is determined to prove―to the subway bosses who have recently fired him, to his badgering, pregnant wife―“that the hours of his life belong to himself alone.” In the aftermath of the fire that follows, Sister St. Savior, an aging nun appears, unbidden, to direct the way forward for his widow and his unborn child.
We begin deep inside Catholic Brooklyn, in the early part of the twentieth century. Decorum, superstition, and shame collude to erase the man’s brief existence. Yet his suicide, although never spoken of, reverberates through many lives and over the decades testing the limits and the demands of love and sacrifice, of forgiveness and forgetfulness, even through multiple generations.
The characters we meet, from Sally, the unborn baby at the beginning of the novel, who becomes the center of the story to the nuns whose personalities we come to know and love to the neighborhood families with whose lives they are entwined, are all rendered with extraordinary sympathy and McDermott’s trademark lucidity and intelligence. Alice McDermott’s The Ninth Hour is a crowning achievement by one of the premiere writers at work in America today.
Elmet by Fiona Mozley
The family thought the little house they had made themselves in Elmet, a corner of Yorkshire, was theirs, that their peaceful, self-sufficient life was safe. Cathy and Daniel roamed the woods freely, occasionally visiting a local woman for some schooling, living outside all conventions. Their father built things and hunted, working with his hands; sometimes he would disappear, forced to do secret, brutal work for money, but to them he was a gentle protector.
Narrated by Daniel after a catastrophic event has occurred, Elmet mesmerizes even as it becomes clear the family’s solitary idyll will not last. When a local landowner shows up on their doorstep, their precarious existence is threatened, their innocence lost. Daddy and Cathy, both of them fierce, strong, and unyielding, set out to protect themselves and their neighbors, putting into motion a chain of events that can only end in violence.
As rich, wild, dark, and beautiful as its Yorkshire setting, Elmet is a gripping debut about life on the margins and the power — and limits — of family loyalty.
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
From the bestselling author of Everything I Never Told You, a riveting novel that traces the intertwined fates of the picture-perfect Richardson family and the enigmatic mother and daughter who upend their lives.
In Shaker Heights, a placid, progressive suburb of Cleveland, everything is planned – from the layout of the winding roads, to the colors of the houses, to the successful lives its residents will go on to lead. And no one embodies this spirit more than Elena Richardson, whose guiding principle is playing by the rules.
Enter Mia Warren – an enigmatic artist and single mother – who arrives in this idyllic bubble with her teenaged daughter Pearl, and rents a house from the Richardsons. Soon Mia and Pearl become more than tenants: all four Richardson children are drawn to the mother-daughter pair. But Mia carries with her a mysterious past and a disregard for the status quo that threatens to upend this carefully ordered community.
When old family friends of the Richardsons attempt to adopt a Chinese-American baby, a custody battle erupts that dramatically divides the town–and puts Mia and Elena on opposing sides. Suspicious of Mia and her motives, Elena is determined to uncover the secrets in Mia’s past. But her obsession will come at unexpected and devastating costs.
Little Fires Everywhere explores the weight of secrets, the nature of art and identity, and the ferocious pull of motherhood – and the danger of believing that following the rules can avert disaster.
Three Daughters of Eve by Elif Shafak
Peri, a married, wealthy, beautiful Turkish woman, is on her way to a dinner party at a seaside mansion in Istanbul when a beggar snatches her handbag. As she wrestles to get it back, a photograph falls to the ground — an old polaroid of three young women and their university professor. A relic from a past — and a love — Peri had tried desperately to forget.
Three Daughters of Eve is set over an evening in contemporary Istanbul, as Peri arrives at the party and navigates the tensions that simmer in this crossroads country between East and West, religious and secular, rich and poor. Over the course of the dinner, and amidst an opulence that is surely ill-begotten, terrorist attacks occur across the city. Competing in Peri’s mind however are the memories invoked by her almost-lost polaroid, of the time years earlier when she was sent abroad for the first time, to attend Oxford University. As a young woman there, she had become friends with the charming, adventurous Shirin, a fully assimilated Iranian girl, and Mona, a devout Egyptian-American. Their arguments about Islam and feminism find focus in the charismatic but controversial Professor Azur, who teaches divinity, but in unorthodox ways. As the terrorist attacks come ever closer, Peri is moved to recall the scandal that tore them all apart.
Elif Shafak is the number one bestselling novelist in her native Turkey, and her work is translated and celebrated around the world. In Three Daughters of Eve, she has given us a rich and moving story that humanizes and personalizes one of the most profound sea changes of the modern world.
Improvement by Joan Silber
One of our most gifted writers of fiction returns with a bold and piercing novel about a young single mother living in New York, her eccentric aunt, and the decisions they make that have unexpected implications for the world around them.
Reyna knows her relationship with Boyd isn’t perfect, yet as she visits him throughout his three-month stint at Rikers Island, their bond grows tighter. Kiki, now settled in the East Village after a journey that took her to Turkey and around the world, admires her niece’s spirit but worries that she always picks the wrong man. Little does she know that the otherwise honorable Boyd is pulling Reyna into a cigarette smuggling scheme, across state lines, where he could risk violating probation. When Reyna ultimately decides to remove herself for the sake of her four-year-old child, her small act of resistance sets into motion a tapestry of events that affect the lives of loved ones and strangers around them.
A novel that examines conviction, connection, and the possibility of generosity in the face of loss, Improvement is as intricately woven together as Kiki’s beloved Turkish rugs, as colorful as the tattoos decorating Reyna’s body, with narrative twists and turns as surprising and unexpected as the lives all around us. The Boston Globe says of Joan Silber: “No other writer can make a few small decisions ripple across the globe, and across time, with more subtlety and power.” Improvement is Silber’s most shining achievement yet.
Autumn by Ali Smith
Autumn. Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness. Two old friends — Daniel, a centenarian, and Elisabeth, born in 1984 — look to both the future and the past as the United Kingdom stands divided by a historic, once-in-a-generation summer. Love is won, love is lost. Hope is hand-in-hand with hopelessness. The seasons roll round, as ever.
A luminous meditation on the meaning of richness and harvest and worth, Autumn is the first installment of Ali Smith’s Seasonal quartet, and it casts an eye over our own time: Who are we? What are we made of? Shakespearean jeu d’esprit, Keatsian melancholy, the sheer bright energy of 1960s pop art. Wide-ranging in time-scale and light-footed through histories, Autumnis an unforgettable story about aging and time and love — and stories themselves.
Golden Hill: A Novel of Old New York by Francis Spufford
The spectacular first novel from acclaimed nonfiction author Francis Spufford follows the adventures of a mysterious young man in mid-eighteenth century Manhattan, thirty years before the American Revolution.
New York, a small town on the tip of Manhattan island, 1746. One rainy evening in November, a handsome young stranger fresh off the boat arrives at a countinghouse door on Golden Hill Street: this is Mr. Smith, amiable, charming, yet strangely determined to keep suspicion shimmering. For in his pocket, he has what seems to be an order for a thousand pounds, a huge sum, and he won’t explain why, or where he comes from, or what he is planning to do in the colonies that requires so much money. Should the New York merchants trust him? Should they risk their credit and refuse to pay? Should they befriend him, seduce him, arrest him; maybe even kill him?
Rich in language and historical perception, yet compulsively readable, Golden Hill is “a remarkable achievement—remarkable, especially, in its intelligent re-creation of the early years of what was to become America’s greatest city” (The Wall Street Journal). Spufford paints an irresistible picture of a New York provokingly different from its later metropolitan self, but already entirely a place where a young man with a fast tongue can invent himself afresh, fall in love—and find a world of trouble. Golden Hill is “immensely pleasurable…Read it for Spufford’s brilliant storytelling, pitch-perfect ear for dialogue, and gift for re-creating a vanished time” (New York Newsday).
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
In Jesmyn Ward’s first novel since her National Book Award–winning Salvage the Bones, this singular American writer brings the archetypal road novel into rural twenty-first-century America. An intimate portrait of a family and an epic tale of hope and struggle, Sing, Unburied, Singjourneys through Mississippi’s past and present, examining the ugly truths at the heart of the American story and the power — and limitations — of family bonds.
Jojo is thirteen years old and trying to understand what it means to be a man. He doesn’t lack in fathers to study, chief among them his Black grandfather, Pop. But there are other men who complicate his understanding: his absent White father, Michael, who is being released from prison; his absent White grandfather, Big Joseph, who won’t acknowledge his existence; and the memories of his dead uncle, Given, who died as a teenager.
His mother, Leonie, is an inconsistent presence in his and his toddler sister’s lives. She is an imperfect mother in constant conflict with herself and those around her. She is Black and her children’s father is White. She wants to be a better mother but can’t put her children above her own needs, especially her drug use. Simultaneously tormented and comforted by visions of her dead brother, which only come to her when she’s high, Leonie is embattled in ways that reflect the brutal reality of her circumstances.
When the children’s father is released from prison, Leonie packs her kids and a friend into her car and drives north to the heart of Mississippi and Parchman Farm, the State Penitentiary. At Parchman, there is another thirteen-year-old boy, the ghost of a dead inmate who carries all of the ugly history of the South with him in his wandering. He too has something to teach Jojo about fathers and sons, about legacies, about violence, about love.
Rich with Ward’s distinctive, lyrical language, Sing, Unburied, Sing is a majestic new work and an unforgettable family story.
© Literary Affairs, 2005-2023. All Rights Reserved.