I’m sure that I am not the only one with more books in my “To Be Read” pile than I could ever possibly read. The pile seems to just keep growing and growing, especially as people tend to pass books my way, telling me, “You are going to love this one!” without actually seeing the stack of books by my bedside just waiting to be read. And I happily accept these books, hoping that I will wedge them in before I find more books that I just cannot live without. This, I believe, is part of the common experience among us readers, to collect these little treasures of worlds unknown to us until we finally dig out that long-forgotten book and wonder why we did not read it sooner.
The good news, for you fellow readers out there, is that I am not going to give you a book to add to your ever-growing, slightly tilting stack. Instead, I am going to tell you about a few books that I think you will love, or at least I hope you will tell me you did.
The Turning by Tim Winton
If you have not read anything by Tim Winton yet, then I suggest that you catch up with him quickly and begin with this collection of interconnected short stories set in Western Australia. While I have read most of his novels, it is this short story collection that made me a true Tim Winton fan—the type that says at during every bookstore visit, “When is he going to write another one?” In this collection of stories, we see the main characters portrayed at different points of their lives and through different viewpoints, each struggling with an issue that is a turning point for them. In one of my favorite stories of the collection, “The Commission,” one of the characters, we have witnessed grow up in several of the stories, visits his long lost father as part of his mother’s deathbed wish. And while the natural tendency may be to despise a character that would abandon his family, Winton’s prose leads you to feel a sort of pity for this character that you would never expect to feel. This is what makes me love Tim Winton, his ability to turn your mind around on what you think you know.
White Noise by Don DeLillo
While I was reading this book not too long ago, I kept wondering why I had not already read this purely original, satirical book (it won the National Book Award in 1985). The story centers around the life and family of Jack Gladney, founder and professor of Hitler studies at a fictional Midwestern college, the father/stepfather of several children, husband to Babette (who has been cheating on Jack in order to get her hands on a drug that lessens the fear of death), and a man with his own suppressed fear of dying. Okay, I can hear some of you out there grumbling, saying that sounds like real downer of a book. That is what makes convincing others to read this book such a tough job, because when I say that this book has some of the funniest, most thought-provoking lines you have ever read, people don’t believe me. But trust me, you will catch yourself laughing out loud throughout this book! This book is about many things, including the idiosyncrasies of everyday life, the avoidance of fear through any means necessary, the cohesiveness of the nuclear family, the craving for a simulated reality, and a certain airborne toxic event that causes a persistent sense of déjà vu in those affected by its plume. Not all books make me feel the urge to quickly dive back in as soon as I have finished reading them. White Noise not only made feel this way, but it also made it nearly impossible to start up a new book because I just knew that nothing else could compare to it. And that, for me, is the sign of a good book!
Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart
In the not so distant future, people have become a little too connected to one another, with the intimate details of one’s life (hotness ratings, cholesterol scores, credit ratings, etc.) constantly available for public viewing through the use of gadgets called äppärät (which are eerily like the smartphones we all carry now) and the GlobalTeens social network. The people of the future go to great lengths to remain forever young and to be a part of the current hyper-superficial pop culture in spite of the ridiculousness of it. The economy has collapsed, huge corporate conglomerations have more power than the government, and books are no longer read since they have been digitized for their data. It is in this setting that Gary Shteyngart gives us Lenny Abramov, a not so attractive, balding, middle-aged man obsessed with Eunice Park, a much younger, very attractive woman way out of Lenny’s league. Lenny and Eunice enter into a relationship in spite of their differences, and only in the hands of the witty Shteyngart do these polar opposites stand a chance to remain together. Unlike Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell’s version of the dystopian future, the characters in Super Sad True Love Story seem much more vulnerable, a little more sensitive, to society’s decay. You cannot help but see where some of our modern technologies may someday lead us. And let’s not forget how absurdly funny Shteyngart can be (if you have read Absurdistan or The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, you know how he has a way of bowling you over, making you look ridiculous as you read in the crowded coffee shop). So, be ready for a laugh if you read this, but be warned: the future does not look too bright!
Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann
Set in New York City in 1974 as a tight rope walker journeys across a cable stretched between the Twin Towers, this story follows the lives of several people who caught a glimpse of this feat. While their lives at first seem disparate from one another, McCann brings out the connections that bind them together to weave a story that is unmatched in beauty and lyricism. The characters range from an Irish monk living in the Bronx in love with a Guatemalan nurse, to a struggling mother and daughter prostitute, to a wealthy woman mourning the loss of her son in the Vietnam conflict, to a guilt-ridden recovering addict artist that forms an unexpected bond with the Irish monk’s brother. This is the type of story that giving away too many of the details too soon will spoil the journey. One thing I can say is that the last few pages of the book, just where you finally understand whose story this ultimately leads to, you will find yourself in sheer awe of the way that McCann puts together his sentences. This is one of the best, most moving endings I have ever read.
The Great House by Nicole Krause
When I buy an antique, I always wonder about its history. Who and how many people owned it before me, where did it fit into their lives, why did they let it go? In Nicole Krause’s latest book, The Great House, a large foreboding desk connects the lives of four characters who have owned it and who are searching it out. As the book unravels, we see the desk change hands from a Chilean poet (later killed by Pinochet’s forces) to a lonely American novelist who writes at the desk for 25 years before giving it to a young woman claiming to be the Chilean poet’s long lost daughter. The story further develops as the history of how the Chilean poet came to receive the desk unwinds. Those who have lost the desk long for its return; for each character, the desk holds a particular irreplaceable significance. Loaded with depth and written in the voice of each of the characters, this is one of the best books I have read this year!
About the Contributor: Erica Williams is a self-taught artist that lives with her husband Jeff in their little house full of books in the piney woods of Texas. Erica opened up her Etsy shop of hand carved designs, Subtle Acts, in October 2010. She believes in carrying a good book with you everywhere you go, establishing a good relationship with a great bookseller, and sharing the stories you read and love.