Readers' Picks for the Holidays

Compiled by Wendy Bronson
Special Services, Ekstrom Library

    'And what are you reading, Miss ­­?' 'Oh! It is only a novel!' . . . or, in short, only some work in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language.

    Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey

As much as I would like to believe that my addiction to novels stems from a mature desire to plumb the depths and varieties of human nature, I must admit that I usually read for fun, not profit. Escape, rather than education, is my primary motivation. But despite the number of fluffy and forgettable novels I manage to devour, I am happiest when reading something with both substance and style. I think it was Virginia Woolf who remarked that George Eliot's Middlemarch is a book written for grown­up people. I feel the same way about Margaret Drabble's later novels. I waited years for her latest, The Witch of Exmoor (Browsing PR 6054.R25.W58 1997), and I was not disappointed. (She was sidetracked from her fictional endeavors by her work as the editor of The Oxford Companion to English Literature and as the biographer of Angus Wilson.) This novel is about power­­familial, political, fictional­­greed, and justice. In one of the first scenes a family is playing a game called the Veil of Ignorance: what sort of society would you design if you couldn't know what your place in it would be? (This might be a good exercise to keep in mind for the Libraries' Reorganization.) Drabble is such an accomplished and assured stylist that she is a joy to read. She also deals with enduring spiritual issues and their current manifestations with a depth that is rare in contemporary novelists. I also strongly recommend my favorite Drabble, The Realms of Gold (PR 6054 .R25 R4).

P.D. James also has a new novel out, the latest in her Adam Dalgliesh detective mysteries. A Certain Justice (Browsing PR6060.A467 C45 1997b) has that certain depth and insight into character which sets James apart in this genre. Much as I enjoy her books, however, I find her outlook unrelentingly dour. Most of her characters have such a dark or limited view of the human condition that her books are oddly oppressive to me even though they are also engrossing. James scorns any shallow and facile reassurance. Like Margaret Drabble, she engages readers on a deep level, but I miss the lightness of touch and humor that Drabble brings to her books.

A book that would make a great present (it was my favorite birthday gift this year) is another new book by an old favorite. The Merry Heart: Reflections on Reading, Writing, and the World of Books (Browsing PR 9199.3 .D3 M47) is a posthumous collection of essays and speeches by Robertson Davies. Some chapter headings ("A Rake at Reading", "Can a Doctor Be a Humanist?", "The Novelist and Magic") give a sense of what an interesting and provocative book this is. The first essay begins with a favorite quotation of mine: "People say that life is the thing, but I prefer reading." At the end of a witty and perceptive essay about reading as his "great refuge and solace," Davies refers again to this quotation. "Logan Pearsall Smith was wrong; reading is not a substitute for life, because it is indivisible from life. Indeed, it is a reflection of the spirit of the reader, and I am truly convinced that we who are committed readers may appear to choose our books, but in an equally true sense our books choose us. By an agency that is not coincidence, but something much more powerful that Jungians call synchronicity, we find, and are found by, the books we need to enlarge and complete us...." This is a wonderful book to own and to return to again and again.

One of my favorite non­fiction authors is the Pulitzer Prize winning Tracy Kidder. I have just read Old Friends (HQ 1064 .U5 K475), which is the account of a nursing home and the individuals who live and work there as Kidder came to know them over the course of a year. My partner had recently gone through the ordeal of placing her grandmother in a nursing home, so I was interested in the subject anyway. However, I think anyone would find Kidder's books fascinating because he is so good at immersing himself in his subjects and bringing them to life. The people in his books are not the one­dimensional ghosts so often found in non­fiction books, but people you come to care for deeply. Earlier books I enjoyed were about a year in the classroom of an elementary school teacher (Among School Children; LB 1776.K48) and the building of a house (House; TH 4811.K48).

Here are more recommendations from your other (less long­winded) colleagues who love to read:

Teresa Bowden, Ekstrom Reference: Two books were assigned to be read in a juvenile delinquency course I took this summer. They turned out to be great reads and incredible eye openers. Down These Mean Streets, by Piri Thomas (F 128.9 .P85 T48), is an autobiography about Piri's life as a child of African and Puerto Rican descent growing up in Spanish Harlem in the 1930s. He documents his search for his identity, which took him through drug abuse, street fighting, and armed robbery to end up in Sing­Sing. Rather than becoming another statistic, Piri does eventually find redemption through his suffering and desire for understanding.

Similarly, Monster: The Autobiography of an LA Gang Member is the story of Sanyika Shakur, aka Monster Kody Scott, and his initiation and participation in an LA gang known as the Crips. He also ends up in a maximum security prison where he is transformed from "Monster" to a black nationalist member of the New Afrikan Independence Movement and a crusader against gang violence. I think the most useful thing about these books is not the story of the rare individual who "gets out," but the insights they provide into the lives of thousands of people who live within these subcultures every day.

Bill Carner, Photographic Archives: I've got to recommend The Man Who Listens to Horses by Monty Roberts (Browsing SF 284.52 .R635 A3 1997). This is more than just a horse book. It's a biography, psychology, and self­help book, for a start. I was amazed to see this book listed on th bestseller lists this summer, but its appeal is close to universal. Monty Roberts is one of many modern horse trainers who use non­aggressive techniques rather than "breaking" the horse and its spirit, but he happens to be the one who got Queen Elizabeth and Dateline NBC as his cheerleaders. His techniques work with children and recalcitrant spouses as well. Here are some of his theories: horses are motivated by fear; if the horse has to choose to think of you as an enemy or an ally, the horse will pick ally, given half a chance; in training, give the horse two choices, making what you want the horse to do the easy choice. This works with people too. IBM, General Motors, and Disney have all hired Monty to help them out. Even if you don't own a horse, I think you'll find the book entertaining and useful.

For a more straight ahead horse book try The Nature of Horses by Stephen Budiansky (Browsing SF 285.B798 1997). This is not a pretty picture book, but an inquiry into the physical, psychological, and historical aspects of the horse. It is written for the layperson as much as for the equestrian.

Mark Dickson, Music Library: Robert Pinsky's The Figured Wheel (Bingham Poetry Room PS 3566 .I54 F54) is the most recent U.S. Poet Laureate's celebrated collection. I haven't finished it yet, but am in awe of the poet's scope. William Trevor's After Rain (Browsing PR 6070 .R4 A6) contains excellent miniature portraits with amazing range. This amazing and celebrated English story writer always seems to have something shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Arturo Perez­Reverte's The Flanders Panel (Browsing PQ 6666 .E765 T3313) is an enjoyable whodunnit that weaves chess and intrigue into a clever story. It is not as deep as Eco's work, to which it is often compared, but it is still lots of fun. I still want to take on his second novel, Club Dumas (Browsing PQ 6666 .E 765 C5813). I am still waiting for an overdue retrospective of my favorite poet, Poland's Zbigneiw Herbert. Maybe next year.

George McWhorter, Rare Books: After seeing Mapp and Lucia by E. L. Benson (Rare Books PR 6003 .E66 M3) on TV, I went out and bought the book. It is hilarious, witty, profound, and just downright entertaining. The dialogue is snappy ... and when you understand that the author was a close friend of Noel Coward, you can see where he's coming from. The story revolves around the rivalry between two British ladies in the small seaside town of Tilling in the late 1920s and early 1930s. I heartily recommend it.

Dave Meyer, Collection Management: Creeping senility keeps me from remembering things I have read for more than a few weeks at a time, if that, so I will limit my recommendations of recent reads to two, both flawed. Kurt Vonnegut's latest (and he swears his last) novel is Timequake (Browsing PS 3572 .O5 T56). The title refers to a blip in infinity that requires every person on earth to re­live a ten­year period. This contrivance is one of the major flaws of the novel. In truth, by Vonnegut's own admission, this is only half a novel that he couldn't get to work to his satisfaction. The resulting book, consequently, is perhaps 75% satisfactory to the reader, but Vonnegut fans should enjoy this last hurrah. As long ago as 1973's Breakfast of Champions, Vonnegut was referring to himself as "an old fart with his Pall Malls" and he seems even more weary today. If not satisfied after reading, try re­reading Mother Night (PS 3572 .O5 M6) or Cat's Cradle (PS 3572 .O5 C38). If you have not read Vonnegut before this, just start with these.

Garrison Keillor's Wobegone Boy (Browsing PS 3561.3755 W6) is a book I was tempted to give up just about anywhere during the first 150 pages. While I'm very glad I didn't just chuck it, I still regret the time I spent slogging through the first half of the book. My advice: skim the first half of the book to get some sense of what is going on and start in earnest on about page 153 (I think; the chapter starts with the death of the main character's father, and I'm not giving anything away here). From here on, I would recommend the book to anyone, but especially any Keillor fans from Prairie Home Companion. Anyone knowing the whereabouts of Keillor's editor should contact Viking at once.

Eric Neagle, Media & Current Periodicals: I just finished a wonderful book, The Celibate, by Michael Arditti. This well­crafted British novel takes you on a Jack­the­Ripper tour of London while the main character, a student of the priesthood, comes to terms with his sexuality. There is also a tour of a small town and its history of the Plague while he reconciles his sexuality with his faith. Written completely in monologue, it's an amazing journey which will leave you in awe.

Glenda Neely, Ekstrom Reference: Two very good (but extremely different) books I've read lately are Personal History by Katherine Graham, the publisher of the Washington Post, and Deja Dead, a murder mystery by Kathy Reichs, a faculty member at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Personal History (Browsing Z 473 .G7A3 1997) is the autobiography of a famous and admired woman whose family has struggled to make the Washington Post a successful paper, her wealth and personal tragedies, and her resilient personality. Mrs. Graham spoke on U of L's campus last spring when in town for the Kentucky Author Forum. Her book is populated with a cast of fascinating characters, from knowing 50 years of presidents (and their wives) to Supreme Court Justices, celebrities, authors, and the journalists and politicians of today.

Deja Dead (Browsing PS 3568 .E476345 D4 1997) is spine tingling and bone chilling (literally) at its best from Kathy Reichs, a well­known practicing forensic anthropologist who happens to be a faculty member and Chief Medical Examiner in North Carolina and Montreal, Quebec. This is a debut crime novel featuring Doctor Temperance Brennan and set in Montreal. Reichs weaves her own experiences into this story of days in the autopsy suite, the courtroom, the crime lab, with cops, and at exhumation sites. A recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education mentioned that this is the first of two novels that Scribner has advanced Dr. Reichs $1.2 million to write!

Bob Roehm, Collection Management: The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell (Browsing PS 3568 .U76678 S 63 1996) is the best first novel I've read in a long time­­tying with Kristin Bakis' Lives of the Monster Dogs (Browsing PS 3552 .A436 L58 1997), also very highly recommended. The Sparrow is the story of a Jesuit­led mission to another planet from which music­like signals have been received. The novel is not so much concerned with the technicalities of the trip as it is with the interplay among the characters and the religious/philosophical implications of first contact with an alien race. This is a serious novel, yet it has considerable flashes of humor throughout. (In fact, I was fortunate enough to meet the author a few months ago, and she could well have a second career as a stand­up comedian. She is, in fact, a former professor of paleoanthropology at Case Western University, so she knows her stuff.) The Sparrow is out now in paperback, and there is a (perhaps unnecessary, in my opinion) sequel due in the spring. Antonio Banderas has optioned the movie rights, and though he would make a fine Father Emilio Sandoz, I'm not holding my breath.

Margo Smith, EkstromTechnical Services: Larry's Party (Browsing PR 9199.3 .S514 L37 1997) is Carol Shields' eighth novel and my favorite of the three that I have read. I discovered the author through a friend who loaned me copies of Stone Diaries and Small Ceremonies. Each of the three novels have similar third person narratives in which the reader is privy to more knowledge about the main character than the character him/herself.

Larry's Party begins in 1977 with Larry's graduation from Floral Arts school. The novel ends in 1997 just after a dinner party. In between, Larry marries two times, once to a car dealer and another time to a medieval scholar. Larry initially works as a floral designer, but his passion is garden mazes.

Shields leads the reader through Larry's life, using the garden maze as a recurring metaphor. There are amusing, tender, sad, witty, perplexing and ordinary moments that are richly described. About an airplane landing she writes, "A sweet soprano bell dinged for attention. Seat belts buckled, tables up, the landing gear grinding down, a small suite of engineering miracles carefully sequenced." Larry's world is closely observed and eloquently expressed, and I couldn't resist tracking each maze that is printed at the head of each chapter.

Larry's Party is one of my top­10 favorite reads and can be found in the Ekstrom Browsing Collection, PR9199.3 .S514 L37 1997.

Nikki Gaines (reader emerita): My favorite novel this year has been The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende (PQ 8098.1 L54 C313). This one's been out quite a few years, but only this year did I sit down and work my way through it. Isabel, who happens to be the niece of Salvador Allende, does a remarkable job of portraying three generations of a Chilean family. You'll find magical realism as well as political critique in this story, and characters who are so human that you can't even hate the bad guys.

Many thanks to everyone for their excellent contributions this year! Happy reading!