Last year I offered a list of 10 wonderful fiction titles to recommend. The books weren’t new from 2014, just memorable and worthwhile books, some written by lesser known authors who deserved greater visibility. I was happy to share these recommendations, especially when one fan told me that my recommendation of Marjorie Morningstar made her go back to that classic and provided her with many hours of reading pleasure again.
This year, my list includes both fiction and non-fiction, classics and lighter, several winners of the Pulitzer Prize, and two laugh-out-loud books from some of England’s most talented humorists. Like last year, they are both new and not so new, but all worth checking out. Let’s get reading!
- Gilead — Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 2004, this title by Marilynne Robinson is one to savor slowly, both the quiet wisdom infused throughout its pages as well as its meditations on the relationships between fathers and sons as well as on faith. Written as a lasting testimony to the young son he will leave behind after his death, Minister John Ames, elderly and frail, writes about living a life of faith and family. He recalls stories about his relationship growing up with his father and eccentric grandfather, both of them ministers also, and about his hopes for the future for this son, an expected gift of his old age.
- All Who Go Do Not Return — This 2015 memoir by Shulem Deen, who was raised as a Hasid in New York’s Skverer community, is poignant, often funny, and written with deft intelligence. As he rebels more and more against the narrow strictures of his religious community, which forbids engagement with the secular world and most secular education, Deen’s conflicts become more intense, and the double life he begins to live becomes untenable. Deen’s love for his children is palpable, which makes their growing estrangement from him over time the more painful to read about. Having lost his faith in a community of fervent faith, he was in an unwinnable situation, and it is heartbreaking.
- Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders — Fans of John Mortimer’s always delightful Rumpole series won’t be disappointed in this essential volume. The Penge Bungalow Murders were the case through which our intrepid and ironically funny barrister made his name. In this book we also meet She Who Must Be Obeyed, Rumpole’s wife Hilda. As a young woman she set her eye on the inexperienced barrister, and urged the law chambers run by her father, C.H. Wystan, to give the novice a chance to prove himself. As is typical in a Rumpole novel, the case that appears “hopeless” may not be at all, and readers will delight in seeing how Rumpole’s determination to see that justice is done will turn the tables, taking him from understudy barrister to the star of the trial. A quick page-turning, frequently funny and clever tale.
- Carry On, Jeeves — Also in the British humor category, “Carry On, Jeeves” is the first in the classic series by P.G. Wodehouse. Here we meet the inimitable Jeeves, the “gentleman’s personal gentleman” who “shimmers” and “oozes” in and out of rooms. Jeeves’ vastly superior intellect is regularly pressed into service to help his employer, young, rich, idle Bertie Wooster, to get “out of the boullion,” where he has a habit of landing. Bertie Wooster expresses his understanding of Jeeves’ value this way: “The man’s a genius. From the collar upward he stands alone.”
The series of stories share the theme of the idle rich (often intellectually challenged) get into trouble, from which Jeeves helps rescue them. But the language is so inventive and so consistently funny, and the predicaments are also very amusing, that the other “sameness” doesn’t detract one bit.
- Buried Treasure: Secrets for Living from the Lord’s Language — My friends and teachers, Rabbi Daniel Lapin and his wife, Susan, wrote this amazing book to show the deep and surprising insights of the Hebrew language and its application to our lives. For example. in Hebrew, the word for friend is “ya-deed,” which breaks down into the word “yad-yad,” or, hand in hand. The word for face in Hebrew is “paneem,” which is a plural construction, because people have more than one face — the face they show to a prospective employer may not be the one they show to a loved one at home. These are two examples that reveal fundamental psychological truths about human nature as expressed through the Lord’s language. This book is engaging and enlightening, while also sharing essential Jewish concepts through the brilliance and succinctness of Hebrew. A helpful section at the beginning introduces the Hebrew alphabet and explanations on how to view each letter as a “tool” when reading each chapter.
- Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table — I loved this memoir by food writer and editor Ruth Reichl. Her story about growing up with an increasingly oddball mother (who would later be diagnosed with a mental disorder), loving but rather hapless father, and a few other dear close relatives, is always captivating. Reichl manages to weave her story, which covers her life from a young girl to a young woman, around her growing love of cooking, and as she discovers her life’s mission in the culinary arts, introduceing us to many memorable characters along the way.
- Roman Fever and Other Stories –– This collection includes some of Edith Wharton’s finest short stories, and I had to reread it immediately after the first reading, because her insights and writing are so sharp, the endings sometimes so unexpected. The stories include familiar Wharton themes, such as an individual’s sense of identity in society, and social acceptance (or not) in the wealthy New York society of the early 20th century. Based on her own unhappy marriage, Wharton also wrote about divorce and other aspects of marital strife, including adultery. An outstanding collection of writing that I believe will stay with the reader for a long time after the last page is turned.
- People of the Book — Hanna Heath is an expert in rare books who unexpectedly digs into the mysterious past of the Sarajevo Hagaddah, a jewel among rare books and notable for its astonishingly fine illustrations, all but unknown in Hagaddahs in the 15th Century. In this fine novel, author Geraldine Brooks does a masterful job of intertwining Heath’s modern-day study of the hagaddah and her personal relationships with a former teacher, the colleague who becomes a love interest, and her cold and aloof mother, a successful surgeon who has hidden the truth to Hanna about the identity of her own father, a mystery that also slowly becomes solved during the course of the book. Brooks’ own knowledge of research of Jewish history, and the fascinating world of rare book examinations and forensics, adds to the reading delight.
- No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II — This Pulitzer-winning book by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin is fascinating throughout, despite the plethora of detailed dates, names, and places that can sometimes make history reading become tedious. Goodwin paints a sometimes gripping portrait of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt during WWII, their complex relationship, how America dealt with the war effort, and Eleanor’s astonishing growth as a public leader in her own right.
- Main Street — I’ll finish off this year’s list with this classic by Sinclair Lewis. Like Lewis’ other books, Arrowsmith, Dodsworth, and Babbitt, this novel is a character study of an individual caught in the parochialism of small town, Midwest America. Lewis has a brilliant ear for dialogue as he skewers the men who say “You bet!” and “Genuwine, honest-to-God homo Americanibus.” This book’s study is of Carol Kennicott, the young wife of Dr. Will Kennicott, from the small town of Gopher Prairie, Minnesota. Carol wants to “improve” the town and everyone in it, but her idealism is quickly crushed by the realization that she is considered a city snob with condescending attitudes toward the locals. She is portrayed as both a heroine for her sympathies toward people who don’t fit the mold of Gopher Prairie and are run out of town, toward socialism, and toward cultural sophistication. Yet she is also shown as a naive woman whose conceit in her superiority undermines many of her own efforts. The town’s most famous native son, Percy Bresnahan, now a successful auto executive in Detroit, understands Carol completely and tells her, “My Lord, to hear you tell it, a fellow’d think that all the denizens, as you impolitely call ’em, are so confoundedly unhappy that it’s a wonder they don’t all up and commit suicide! But they seem to struggle along somehow!”
Need more light and funny books to enjoy? Don’t forget my own laugh-inducing works, Till We Eat Again: A Second Helping, The Women’s Daily Irony Supplement, and Carpool Tunnel Syndrome — a modern-day classic!