A good novel often piques interest that extends past its back cover, like when a war novel inspires you to pick up a history book. We think you'll want to read these pairs together.
The Aviator's Wife by Melanie Benjamin is a new work of historical fiction that reimagines the life of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, the wife of Charles Lindbergh. The facts of her life are known, including the famed and tragic kidnapping and murder of her first child, but cast under the shadow of her famous husband, she has never been in the spotlight this way before. Lindbergh was a complicated person and Benjamin does a good job letting us into her inner world. Besides being a wife and mother, Anne was also an accomplished pilot and bestselling author. Her thoughts on life and love were beautifully chronicled in her most well-known work, Gift from the Sea. Written in essay form, her unsentimental musings focus on women's lives in particular and the evolving nature of marriage. You can read more about this match-up on our store journal.
Artistic recognition beyond the Civil Rights era
The House Girl by Tara Conklin intertwines the stories of two strong women: Lina, a modern attorney, and Josephine, a slave from the pre-Civil War era. Lina discovers a controversy rocking the art world: art historians now suspect that the revered paintings of Lu Anne Bell, an antebellum artist known for her humanizing portraits of the slaves who worked her Virginia tobacco farm, were actually the work of her house slave, Josephine. In piecing together Josephine's story, Lina embarks on a journey that will lead her to question her own life, including the full story of her mother's mysterious death twenty years before. The Trials of Phillis Wheatley by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. explores the pivotal roles that Phillis Wheatley, a slave and acclaimed author, and Thomas Jefferson, who refused to acknowledge her talents, played in shaping the black literary tradition.
A pair of books that try to bridge the gap between the 1% and the rest of the world
The Other Wes Moore by Wes Moore tells the story of two kids named Wes Moore who were born blocks apart within a year of each other. Both grew up fatherless in similar Baltimore neighborhoods and had difficult childhoods; both hung out on street corners with their crews; both ran into trouble with the police. How, then, did one grow up to be a Rhodes Scholar, decorated veteran, White House Fellow, and business leader, while the other ended up a convicted murderer serving a life sentence? The Blue Sweater by Jacqueline Novogratz tells a fascinating history. The author grew up in Virginia owning a beloved blue sweater. When she outgrew it, she donated it Goodwill, only to find the exact same sweater eleven years later, her nametag still inside, on the back of a young boy in Rwanda. Her experiences there inspired her to leave her career in banking and sparked a quest to uncover the roots of global poverty. A powerful autobiography and a practical-minded call to action.
Two fictional views of the Japanese-American experience
The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka is the story of a group of young women brought from Japan to San Francisco as “picture
brides” nearly a century ago. In eight unforgettable sections, The Buddha in the Attic
traces the extraordinary lives of these women, from their arduous journeys by boat, to
their arrival in San Francisco and their tremulous first nights as new wives; from their
experiences raising children who would later reject their culture and language, to the
terrible arrival of war. In The No-No Boys by Teresa Funke, a teenage boy and his family are forced into a Northern California internment camp as World War II begins. His loyalties to nation and family are put to the test when his
brother joins a group of self-proclaimed No-Nos who refuse to swear their allegiance to
the country that has imprisoned them.
A wide-angle view of medicine along with a look through a personal lens
In The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee, a physician and science writer takes on perhaps the biggest subject in all of medicine as he surveys the five thousand-year record of the human battle with cancer. It's a compelling take on a subject that affects everyone, and it reads with the same narrative flair as the best fiction. My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor shows how the relationship between medical professional and patient is never closer than when they're the same person. When Taylor, a brain expert, suffered a debilitating stroke at the age of thirty-seven, her first thought was "Oh, no," but her second was "Wow, this is so cool." A unique perspective, to say the least. Her eight-year journey to full health is a captivating story of one woman discovering how to integrate the logical and emotional sides of herself.
Women of the West
A Sudden Country by Karen Fisher is a vivid and revelatory novel based on actual events of the 1847 Oregon migration, A Sudden Country follows two characters of remarkable complexity and strength. An ambitious trader, deserted by his Native American wife, sets out to find her after the death of his children from smallpox. Instead, he meets a remarried widow, careful mother, and reluctant emigrant. As their hidden stories and obsessions unfold, and pasts and cultures collide, both must confront the people they have truly been, and may become. The Hearts of Horses by Molly Gloss takes place in the winter of 1917, when nineteen-year-old Martha Lessen saddles her horses and heads for a remote county in eastern Oregon, looking for work “gentling” wild horses. She chances on a rancher, George Bliss, who is willing to hire her on. Many of his regular hands are off fighting the war, and he glimpses, beneath her showy rodeo garb, a shy but strong- willed girl with a serious knowledge of horses. So begins the irresistible tale of a young but determined woman trying to make a go of it in a man’s world.
Straight Man by Richard Russo is one of the funniest novels of recent years and the story of a reluctant head of an English department at an underfunded Eastern college. In the course of a single week, the protagonist will have his nose mangled by an angry colleague, imagine his wife is having an affair with his dean, wonder if a curvaceous adjunct is trying to seduce him with peach pits, and threaten to execute a goose on local television. She’s Not There by Jennifer Finney Boylan is a witty look at academia, but more significantly, it's about someone finding a true self. The person once known as James Boylan is now Jenny Boylan, and her story of transformation is a wonder. Novelist James Boylan was a colleague and good friend of Richard Russo's, and they taught for years in the same university's English department.
Victorian classics and how they came to be
New Grub Street by George Gissing illuminates the conditions under which those masters labored. Gissing's juxtaposed tales of success and failure are an excellent reminder of the ways in which his time was much like our own; then, as now, glibness and topicality paid the rent better than integrity and truth. His characters, like us but unlike most literary figures, think daily about their economic constraints and possibilities. By the end of New Grub Street, we know all too well the price art exacts on the heart and on the pocketbook. Gissing's view may focus on the rougher side of his profession, but the flaws his harsh light exposes on the Victorian antiques make them seem all the more human and all the more valuable. Conventional wisdom describes the Victorian period as a golden age of literature, when novelists such as Dickens and Eliot could produce work that was both lasting and lucrative, work that intelligently plumbed the depths of human character and entertainingly splashed in the shallows of high society. Those who love the triple-decker masterpieces of this era may well enjoy this briefer work. Widely considered the epitome of the 19th-century novel, Great Expectations by Charles Dickens combines plot and character to form a reading experience unmatched in any era.
Stuart: A Life Backwards by Alexander Masters introduces a unique and oddly compelling protagonist. The only people who ever took notice of Stuart were the ones who crossed streets to avoid him. His slow self destruction would have seemed no loss at all, except that one author did come to know this complete wastrel, chronicling all the rich and terrible tumult of his life. A comic car crash, if you can imagine such a thing. Twin: A Memoir by Allen Shawn is a compelling portrait of the author's family. His father was the editor of the New Yorker, his brother became an acclaimed playwright, and his sister was developmentally disabled, autistic, and left to fend for herself in an institution, unspoken of by her relatives. Allen Shawn looks hard at the hole her absence left in all their lives.
In Here They Come by Yannick Murphy, the lyrical voice of a 13-year-old girl recounts the story of an impoverished family in sometimes shocking, sometimes surreal style. The 1970s New York setting is a haunting, harrowing backdrop for a memorable group of idiosyncratic characters. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith shows a rich slice of family life in turn of the century Brooklyn, focusing on a plucky young heroine. Now a beloved classic, it was originally seen as a squalid scandal when it was first published over fifty years ago.
Houses of Privilege, or, Downton Abbey Turned Upside Down
Dead End Gene Pool by Wendy Burden shows how Burden's family forms a major branch of the Vanderbilt family tree--a decaying, barren one, as she herself might put it. Her memoir is a hilarious examination of a doomed group of blue bloods possessing more money than sense and running out of both. She doesn't display an ounce of self-pity as she chronicles their financial and moral decline, but her sense of humor remains intact throughout. Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead by Barbara Comyns brings Downton Abbey to mind because it's a rich ensemble piece, taking a democratic interest in everyone from the least respected servant to the lord of the manor, but it’s far stranger and funnier than the highly groomed and polished TV series. The Willoweed estate is a decaying wreck ruled by an ancient, tyrannous matriarch, and the entire village is rife with toadying, backstabbing, infidelity, and worse. The book opens with a flood—“The ducks swam through the drawing room windows”—and the crises mount from there.
Two trips through the Balkans
The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht was described by the author as “a family saga that takes place in a fictionalized province of the Balkans. It’s about a female narrator and her relationship to her grandfather, who’s a doctor. It’s a saga about doctors and their relationships to death throughout all these wars in the Balkans.” It’s a delicately balanced mix, juxtaposing the hard-hitting truths of urban life against the myths and superstitions of family and village history. It’s a richly- written, assured, ambitious novel that’s all the more impressive when you consider that Obreht was born in Belgrade as recently as 1985 and came to the US at the age of twelve. A Time of Gifts / Between the Woods and the Water by Patrick Leigh Fermor tells how at the age of eighteen, Patrick Leigh Fermor set off from the heart of London on an epic journey--to walk to Constantinople. A Time of Gifts is the rich account of his adventures as far as Hungary, after which Between the Woods and the Water continues the story to the Iron Gates that divide the Carpathian and Balkan mountains. Acclaimed for its sweep and intelligence, Leigh Fermor's book explores a remarkable moment in time. Hitler has just come to power but war is still ahead, as he walks through a Europe soon to be forever changed--through the Lowlands to Mitteleuropa, to Teutonic and Slav heartlands, through the baroque remains of the Holy Roman Empire; up the Rhine, and down to the Danube. At once a memoir of coming-of-age, an account of a journey, and a dazzling exposition of the English language.
The multi-racial experience in fiction and biography
A Singular Woman by Janny Scott peers into the life of Barack Obama's mother. Even if Stanley Ann Dunham hadn’t given birth to the boy who would one day become the 44th President of the US, she’d have made a fascinating subject for a biography. Born in a traditional family, she forged a very untraditional life. Her peripatetic career took her to places a disparate as Wichita, Honolulu, and Jakarta; she married twice, once to a Kenyan and once to an Indonesian; and she helped launch the microcredit movement in world finance that’s helped countless people out of abject poverty. Her son refers to her as “the dominant figure in my formative years,” further saying, “the values she taught me continue to be my touchstone when it comes to how I go about the world of politics.” Ann Dunham’s own formative years were spent right here on Mercer Island. In The Girl Who Fell from the Sky by Heidi Durrow, Rachel, the daughter of a Danish mother and a black G.I., becomes the sole survivor of a family tragedy after a fateful morning on their Chicago rooftop. Forced to move to a new city, with her strict African American grandmother as her guardian, Rachel is thrust for the first time into a mostly black community, where her light brown skin, blue eyes, and beauty bring a constant stream of attention her way. It's there, as she grows up and tries to swallow her grief, that she comes to understand how the mystery and tragedy of her mother might be connected to her own uncertain identity.