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My Favorite New Author in 2021
I had a hard time chosing a favorite book for 2021, as I’ve already chosen 4 favorites for each quarter. But what really shone in my 2021 reading was discovering Tayari Jones as an extremely talented author. After reading An American Marriage (Favorite Book for 1Q 2021), I read Silver Sparrow, followed by Leaving Atlanta. I have her final novel in my to read pile, but decided to save The Untelling for a special time when I want a sure fire great novel. I noticed a short story from her in the Audible Plus catalogue and loved Dispossession just as much as her novels. I’ve never given 5 stars to all the books from a single author before Tayari, but she’s that good! Her writing brings the characters to life, deals with interesting real life situations and complex relationships, and she brings us into the world of the Black middle and working classes in the Atlanta, GA region. Tayari has won a number of awards, most recently winning a Guggenheim Fellowship, and been highlighted in multiple magazines and lists. She is a creative writing professor at Emory University, helping to form future generations of writers. Check her out … you won’t be disappointed.
A Slow Fire Burning by Paula Hawkins
My Favorite Book 4Q 2021
I loved this book! A psychological thriller, which is only something I occasionally read, so maybe that’s why I didn’t mind the slow burn of the story line and the complex interweaving of the characters and their traumatic pasts. Each character is unpalatable for a different reason, but carries a specific pain that burns through their lives to potentially disatrous consequences. One of these characters killed a young man on a houseboat, and each have possible reasons for doing so. Although the mystery is entertaining and leads us to believe it is first one character and then another, the real strength of the book is getting into people’s minds who have been damaged by trauma and what it does to them in the long years after the initiating event. And did I mention the writing? Oh the writing! Even from the first chapter which makes you laugh at the end. I’ve read and fully enjoyed all 3 of her books so far and this one is a solid 5 for me. I listened to it as an audiobook and the narrator, Rosamund Pike, added to the story with her wonderful reading. I’m now reading the paper version as my book group has chosen to read it as well. It is just as engaging a second time around.
Voices In The Mist by Susanne Dunlap
My Favorite Book 3Q 2021
Susanne Dunlap writes Historical Fiction for both adult and young adult audiences. She’s also a writing coach and a friend. It’s especially fun to read a book when you know the author, particularly when they are such good writers! This book is the final in a trilogy, but is really a prequel to the story in the first two books. Voices In The Mist is my favorite of the three. The story intertwines just enough with the first two to remind you of those details and how they fit together, but this one is very distinct and can easily be read separately. It focuses on the life of Bruna, a young woman in 13th century France who was raised to be a Cathar Christian. This sect was being called heretical by the Pope and Catholic Christians were seeking them out to destroy them. This very peaceful people had a different interpretation of Jesus and were pacifists, vegetarian and believed in the dignity and worth of women as well as men. They also had a rich musical heritage, so beautifully described in the book. So many interesting details are woven into the story.
Bruna runs from her family when she fears she will be forced to betray them and her people, setting in motion a series of events that result in the attentions of a powerful Catholic baron. His mother disapproves of the match and Bruna, under the alias Arsendis, becomes the Barona de Belascon and must keep her wits about her as her mother-in-law schemes to cause her divorce. When the Cathars are threatened by her own husband, Bruna feels bound to act. The action and pacing of the story keep you turning pages and the quality of the writing envelops you in this very different time and place. An engaging and truly enjoyable story that leaves you feeling full and satisfied.
Cleopatra: A Life by Stacey Schiff
My Favorite Book 2Q 2021
This was a fascinating popular history not only about Cleopatra, but also of the time where much of the world was being consolidated into the Roman Empire, ruled not by a Republic, but by an Emperor. Egypt transitioned from being a “friend” of the Empire to a province and lost it’s autonomy, ending the Ptolemaic Kingdom. Egyptian Alexandria was the most cultured city in the world, full of learning, wonders and riches stemming from the fertility of the Nile. The city of Rome was a backwater in comparison, despite Rome’s power. The Romans of the period had a cultural distaste for luxury that extended into laws allowing confiscation of fancy tableware and furniture.
I also enjoyed learning about the Ptolemaic Kingdom leading up to Cleopatra’s rule. They were really Macedonian Greeks descended from a general in Alexander the Great’s army, but claiming to be direct descendants of him. The only genuine images of her are on coins, and long or hooked noses are a common theme, so she was unlikely to have looked much like Elizabeth Taylor! Cleopatra and the ruling elite spoke Greek and she was a rare ruler of her time, able to speak the language of her people and that of many others in the region. Interestingly, the language she had the least ease with was Latin. The Ptolemaics dealt with dynasty issues by intermarrying, often between siblings, which led to a lot of familial murder to get rid of competition for the throne, all of which Cleopatra participated in.
Cleopatra as a woman in power was not unique in Ptolemaic history, but it was unusual in the ancient world. At that time, women in Roman culture had very little status, even though the daughters of the elite were educated. Since most remaining recorded history about Cleopatra came from the Romans, it was not surprisingly colored by the interpretation of her enemy Octavian (later to become Caesar Augustus). Stacy Schiff gave the different viewpoints of these accounts, other background histories and the political context of the times and let you draw your own conclusions. The seductive temptress who ruined Julius Caesar and Marc Antony with her excesses became more lifelike. She must have been a shrewd politician and manipulator of people in order to succeed as well as she did in her 22 year rule.
There were also interesting tidbits for those interested in the history of New Testament times. Herod and Cleopatra came to hate each other and that helped forge a strong alliance between Herod and Octavian, much to his advantage. Also, when Mary and Joseph fled to Egypt, it was likely to the thriving Jewish community in Alexandria. Jewish recruits were critical to the Egyptian army in Cleopatra’s day, so they were considered valuable allies.
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
My Favorite Book 1Q 2021
As soon as I started this book, I enjoyed it, but I passed into loving it when I hit the letters between Celestial (living her life) and Roy (in prison). After facilitating writing groups in a women’s jail for years, I can say that she hit them spot on. It is such a stress on a relationship to be separated that way, and it does pass through different phases as exemplified in the letters and the story. I appreciate this novel as a vehicle to show the human cost of even just a few years of being incarcerated on not only that person, but everyone in the circle around them. Add onto that the excessive rate of incarceration of black men and the considerable barriers that confront them on their way out and you have American tragedy. Novels like this are an important addition to the education of Americans about what we have done and are doing in our society.
Although some reviewers didn’t especially like the main characters, I found them to be real people with talents and flaws. Celestial was a little spoiled, but able to be true to herself and her art, yet able to make huge sacrifices at times. Roy was arrogant and overly assured as he was sure he was on a trajectory toward the image of success he had, but he was also willing to play the field a little bit while married. This was a young marriage that might not have made it, but his imprisonment changed the whole dynamic. He became entirely dependent on Celestial’s kindness and loyalty, stripped of his manhood. The story delves deep into what makes a marriage that works and what kinds of sacrifices people are willing to make. I enjoyed having their parent’s marriages and opinions thrown into the mix as we better understood Celestial’s and Roy’s backgrounds, but also marriage from an earlier generation.
The book is well written and I’ll definitely be looking up further novels from Tayari Jones. A few quotes that don’t spoil the story:
“A man who is a father to a daughter is different from one who is a father to a son. One is the left shoe an the other is the right. They are the same but not interchangeable.”
“Gloria once told me that your best quality is also your worst. … She told me that since I was very small, I have embraced my appetites. ‘You always run toward what you want. Your father always tries to beak you of this, but you are just like him, brilliant but impulsive and a tiny bit selfish. But more women should be selfish,’ she said. ‘Or else the world will trample you.'”
Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi
My Favorite Book from 2020
This novel covers so many deeply interesting topics, yet it does not feel too heavy or overburdened by any one of them. As a neuroscientist who has worked with mice, I appreciated the way her main character, Gifty, gives us a taste of the joys of doing this work. The studies described are truly cutting edge. A shout out to Christina Kim, the real scientist who did this impressive work and continues to have a brilliant career fusing neuroanatomy, behavior and genetics.
I love the discussion about science and religion and how Gifty, who grew up in an Evangelical Christian Church, explores her faith as a child, has a mystical experience, and then the questions that faith as she watches her beloved brother, Nana, fight with and then succumb to addiction. As Gifty heads off to college and hears other students ridicule those who believe, she realizes there was something in the Christianity she grew up in and that her mother still practices. She’s not sure what to do with religion, but that upbringing is truly part of who she is and I appreciate that Gyasi does not give that short shrift.
The mother-daughter relationship in this story is complex, with Gifty’s single mother showing obvious preference for the ill-fated son and a lack of obvious affection for her daughter who strives always to be perfect and good. As Gifty grows, she realizes how connected she is with her mother and is at a loss for how to help her depression. The two are joined in their grief over the loss of Nana, yet they express that grief in different ways.
Another important aspect of the book concerns immigration and race. Those who seek a better life for their children in this country often have a difficult time and the story of the mother’s sheer will-power, then brokenness is moving, especially in the face of the racism of their community. At times the mother seems oblivious to the discrimination around her, and I wonder if that perspective comes from having grown up in Ghana without it, as well as the power of her wishful dreams once in the US.
Finally, Gyasi deals with the issue of the opioid epidemic, and although some reviewers found the treatment insubstantial, what I loved was the focus on the effect of Nana’s addiction and death on Gifty and her mother over many years. The tragedy was not that one day, but lifetimes.
It doesn’t seem like all of these topics could be handled well in one book, but it was, and don’t let the science or religion scare you away. This beautifully written novel moves smoothly through all these themes and and ends up leaving you filled with the complexity of human life.
The Atomic Weight of Love by Elizabeth J. Church
An Older Favorite I still think about
|I loved this book! I always wondered what it would be like to be someone who is a scientist at heart, but in an era where they could not fulfill that dream. This book takes you there. Meredith starts out to become an ornithologist, manages to complete a bachelor’s degree in the 1940s (no mean feat) but also marries a professor of physics. She is never able to complete her studies, but she tries to live a meaningful life within the societal constrictions of the 50s and 60s and continues some unofficial studies of a crow community nearby. She starts at the University of Chicago and moves to Los Alamos, NM because her husband works on the atomic bomb and continues to work at the facility there. A great debut novel from someone who weaves interesting things about the communities, birds and even physics into the life of a complex woman. Her husband, although he can seem uni-dimensional at times, has depth in this novel as well. No surprise that I’m drawn to books about female scientists, and I’ve always been fascinated by crows as well. I thoroughly enjoyed this debut from Elizabeth Church.|
The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
An Older Favorite I just re-read
|This was a really fun book to read for many reasons:|
1) The writing was thick with great phrases, descriptions and quotes
2) Many interesting characters with intertwining lives over two generations… I especially liked the parallels in the lives of Carax and David, not too much the same, just enough.
3) Lots happening that makes you want to read more, and a few little surprises. Even when you start to figure things out you still want to keep reading for the pure enjoyment.
4) Learning a bit about living in Barcelona, especially in the 1930s and 40s and the effects of their Civil War.
The translation is wonderful by Lucia Graves, Robert Graves daughter. Carlos Ruiz Zafon wrote in Spanish, even though he moved from Barcelona to Los Angeles. Sadly, he passed away in June 2020, but he left us a lot of Reading Bliss.
Here’s a favorite quote:
A story is a letter the author writes to himself, to tell himself things that he would be unable to discover otherwise.