Tuesday, December 29, 2015

New Year's Reads

My friend Dorrit told me about an Icelandic tradition of giving books as presents on Christmas Eve and then spending the rest of the night reading them. It's a wonderful idea, but I'd prefer to adopt it for New Year's Eve. (My days of eagerly waiting for the ball to drop are long past.) Here are some books to cozy up with whenever the mood might strike.

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff.  I'd been reading about this 2015 National Book Award Finalist for quite a while, but was resistant to picking it up.  What could be so special about a story of a marriage? But once I started this book (which I listened to on Audible), I found myself walking further and looking forward to time in the car so I could find out what would happen next.

Groff tells the couple's story in two parts. We hear first from Lotto, a golden boy who grew up with everyone expecting great things of him. The narrative of Lotto's life is sequential, from childhood through marriage to Mathilde. I was engrossed in Lotto's story, but found myself anxious to hear Mathilde's perspective. It was worth the wait. The circumstances of Mathilde's life before Lotto are a closely held secret she hasn't shared with anyone, including her husband. Mathilde's story unfolds in bits and pieces, and we learn one moment about her childhood and the next about her role as Lotto's wife.  All I can say is "wow."

Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline. This highly readable book has been on my list for some time.  It tells the story of two women--one at the end of her life and the other at the beginning--whose paths cross when the young woman is required to do community service for stealing a book. Over time, they realize their commonality and develop a real bond. Friends, as the saying goes, are the family you choose.

While I enjoyed the book, what I found most interesting was learning about the orphan train movement.  From the 1850s to 1929, more than 200,000 orphaned, abandoned and homeless children from the East Coast were shipped westward by train in search of new homes. The passages in the book about the train ride and the selection process are particularly sad. And while some children ended up in loving adoptive homes, many were taken in as indentured servants (complete with a 90-day return policy).  The orphan train program was discontinued in the 1929 with the advent of what is now the foster care program (which, of course, has its own problems). 

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler. I picked this book up in part because it was short-listed for the 2014 Man Booker Prize. But I also was drawn in by the prologue, which tells of Rosemary, a girl who was a "great talker" as a child. At bedtime, Rosemary's father would come in to tell her goodnight and Rosemary "would speak without taking a breath, trying desperately to keep him in my room with only my voice....'I have something to say,'  I'd tell him." "Skip the beginning," he'd respond. "Start in the middle."  And so this is how Rosemary relays the story of her life, by starting in the middle. 

The book is the story of Rosemary and her two siblings, Fern and Lowell.  Fern disappeared when Rosemary was five years old; Lowell ran away a decade ago. At its heart, the reason for these losses is simple. As the back of the book says, their father used their childhood as an experiment. 

Before you get too alarmed (or decide not to read this book on grounds of gruesomeness), there's no child abuse or neglect. Just a highly unusual living situation that, to the kids, is totally normal. It is when the circumstances change that their lives begin to go awry.

I don't want to say more because the relationships at the heart of this story are what make it so surprising, compelling and--ultimately--satisfying. What I will say, though, is this is a tale like no other written by an author at the peak of her craft.  I loved it. 

Make Me by Lee Child. Sometimes you just need a good thriller, and nobody writes one better than Lee Child.  Make Me is the 20th book in the Jack Reacher series, and I've read every one.  What I love about these books is the intelligence with which Reacher approaches the situations he wanders into. (Admittedly, it's quite beyond belief that one guy who randomly moves around the country carrying only his toothbrush could find so much trouble, but I'm more than willing to go with it.)

I fell into this book quickly, with an appreciation for the thought the bad guys put into burying a corpse in the first paragraph of the book. "They buried him close to the house. Which made sense...The harvest was still a month away, and a disturbance in a field would show up from the air. And they would use the air, for a guy like Keever. They would use search planes, and helicopters, and maybe even drones." The story takes off from there, and I went happily along for the ride.  

May your 2016 be filled with great reads! 

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