Saturday, January 24, 2015

Favorite Reads

This past year I read 60 books, an all time high for me, but a pittance in the world of literature. Because we are allowed a finite number of books in our lifetime, I choose with care, trying to allot my time wisely. For the past seven years I've kept a list of everything that I read, give it a rating and jot a sentence to remind me of its content. About 60% is fiction and 25% has some Jewish theme as I frequently read on themes related to my artwork. I am in two book clubs, one that has been going for around 30 years and reads a broad range of current literature. The second is focused on creativity and the arts. That assures that I am introduced to books I might not pick up on my own, but which I am grateful to discover.

I am surprised at how easy it is to identify the ones that are standouts. They are the ones that stayed with me, where plot and characters remained lodged in memory. Interestingly several of them are debut novels and all of those have some otherworldly elements. As a child I loved fairy tales and mythology and perhaps these are the adult versions, often weaving mythical creatures and historical fiction.

The Debuts

Three Souls (2014) by Janie Chang is set in China and told through the eyes of a woman who has died and is looking back at her life. It begins with "we have three souls or so I've been told, but only in death could I confirm it". The novel begins in 1935 and looks back upon the politics of a changing China. The main character is guided by her three souls, one stern, one impulsive and one wise. She must make amends before she can move on in her journey. On this premise one is taken into her life as a Chinese woman in search of the matter which must be remedied.

The Golem and The Jinni (2013) by Helene Wecker takes the Jewish theme of a golem made of clay and imbued with spirit coupled with a jinni drawn from Arab folklore. It sets them loose in turn of the century New York and lets them evolve, often testing the limits of their natures. It is an odd premise, but Wecker makes it work, truly bringing them to life.

The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope (2013) by Rhonda Riley also creates one of the central characters out of mud. This creation has the ability to mirror another person in form and being, even to alter gender. It too is a weird premise, but it works. It examines what it is to live life with a secret. Beautifully written, it also creates an unusual and touching love story.


I weigh nonfiction on a different scale. Did it give me information I didn't know previously? Did that information affect me on an emotional level?

The Lady in Gold (2012) by Anne Marie O'Connor followed the story of a Klimt painting of Adele Bloch-Bauer, the life of its owner and the efforts of her descendants to recover the painting. It takes us deep into Austria during WWII and the Nazi reign both during the war and distressingly after. The first part of the book explored Klimt's life and relationships that led to the creation of the painting. The second part was the destruction of both lives and a world under the Nazis. The third part was as disturbing as the second. It explored the difficulties survivors had in regaining their artwork even after the war as Nazis continued to reign, creating countless hurdles and ironically laying claim to this painting of a Jewish woman. A movie titled Woman in Gold will soon come out and I will be interested in how they address the post-war period.

The Birth of the Pill (2014) by Jonathan Eig explores the creation of the birth control pill which placed women in control of their lives. I came of age after this time and sometimes forget the limited choices biology imposed. It is a character driven book for it took a cast of four key characters to make this a reality. The fifth character is the environment in which the Pill's creation unfolded, a culture which was resistant to contraceptives largely because of the Catholic Church. Meanwhile women were desperate for a simple and reliable form of contraceptive. It seems that even today we continue to fight offshoots of this early battle.

Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher (2012) was addressed in an earlier post and introduced to me by my Arts bookclub. It looks at Edward Curtis and his role as both photographer and ethnographer of Indian tribes at a time when their culture was being quite intentionally destroyed. A fascinating exploration of a life driven by a singular passion.

Authors On a Roll

I've read at least two books by each of the following authors and can vouch for their staying power.
All the Light We Cannot See (2014) by Anthony Doerr is my all time favorite this year. While I read it in my bookclub, I had already discovered the author's book of short stories titled Memory Wall. His new book is set in France during WWII. It juxtaposes a young blind French girl in St Malo with an orphaned German boy swept up in the machinery of the war. His task is to trace radio broadcasts of the resistance and that task ultimately causes their stories to converge.

Transatlantic (2013) by Colum McCann is a book that leaves trails of breadcrumbs through time. There are three discrete, but connected stories; Frederick Douglas on an international lecture tour in Ireland in the mid 1800s, two aviators who attempt the first nonstop flight across the Atlantic in 1919 and George Mitchell in 1998 trying to broker peace in Ireland. The stories connect through interrelated generations of women.

And two more authors of books that I've addressed in an earlier post...

Night in Shanghai (2014) by Nicole Mones addressed prewar and wartime Shanghai and the experience of black Jazz musicians within it. I recommend any book by Mones and have read them all.

I became a fan of Chimimanda Adichie this year when I read Americanah (2013) in my bookclub and intrigued, followed with her earlier book Half of a Yellow Sun (2009), set during the Nigerian-Biafra war. Americanah was a look at the experience of a Nigerian woman in the United States, examining our culture, both white and black, through outsider eyes. There is also an excellent TED talk by this author.

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