January is the perfect month to put your feet up and immerse yourself in a great book.
At this same time last year, I set a reading goal for myself of twenty books and I ended up reading twenty-three! Of those twenty-three books, these are my ten best of the best.
This first book, Mrs. Wiggins, was remarkable in that it isn't like any book I have ever read before. I like to describe it as The Help meets Dexter. Yes, seriously! This isn't some tired retread. In the very first chapter of this depression-era deep south story you meet two of the main characters; Maggie and Hubert. Maggie is a seventeen-year-old girl who has been sexually abused as a child and Hubert Wiggins, her good friend, is a young black, closeted homosexual, and the son of a preacher. The narrative can read as rather simplistic at times, but I think this was the author's way of telling the story from the point of an uneducated Alabama girl in the 1930s.
These two friends, Maggie and Hubert decide that getting married would be a social step up for Maggie and a way to hide Hubert's sexuality from the outside world. Hubert feels they should have one child to thwart any doubts about the validity of their marriage and Maggie hesitantly agrees. But who will father their child? And there the story begins.
This second book, The Personal Librarian, is a work of historical fiction and is the fascinating story of Belle da Costa Greene. Belle is hired by J.P. Morgan to be his personal librarian and to curate his extensive private collection of books, writings, and artwork in an era when males dominated this field. What makes this book so intriguing is not only that Belle in the early 1900's achieves such a high level of success in her career but that she does it while being forced to keep a deep secret about who she is. Belle, although light complected, is actually black but passes herself off as a white woman of Portuguese descent. Instead of trying to hide her true identity and diminishing her gender by blending in, she dresses with a flamboyant and colorfully feminine flair that only draws attention to her sex. No one suspects her ethnicity because she is successfully hiding her background in plain sight. Her negotiating skills, her eye for masterpieces, and even her gender all contribute to her reputation as an asset to J.P. Morgan. The book highlights the many personal sacrifices she had to make to retain her position and her status in the art and literary world. This was an insightful and educational read. Definitely recommended.
This next book, I read by mistake. How do you read a book by mistake? Well, I am part of a book group and the selection one month was Anthem by Noah Hawley*. I erroneously downloaded this book by the same name and I am so glad I did. It is a short read that was written by Ayn Rand in 1938. It is a futuristic tale of a dystopian world that is eerily and frighteningly similar to our current times. Pronouns are gender-neutral. Conformity and uniformity are the government's objectives. Free thinking, individuality, and the pursuit of comfort and happiness are eliminated in the interest of equity. Sound familiar? I would encourage everyone to read this eye-opening book that was decades ahead of its time.
I loved this next book, A Man Called Ove. I might be the last person around who hadn't read it, but if you have also missed it, you've missed a funny, bittersweet story about an aging and recently widowed Swedish curmudgeon who wants nothing more in life now than to end it. His unsuccessful attempts at suicide and the intervening events and subsequent evolving relationships with his neighbors had me gut laughing more than once. This beautiful story is also being released this month as a movie starring Tom Hanks. Count me in. I can't wait to buy my ticket.
Faithful, by Alice Hoffman, is based on survival and guilt. Shelby, the main character, is dealing with the aftermath of surviving a car accident that has left her best friend's life forever altered. The reader shares her journey from the depths of an intense masochistic and chronic depression as she evolves through the numerous small steps of recovery and acceptance. It would be a dark and depressing book if it weren't for the wonderfully developed characters and the back-and-forth tension between her fear of moving forward and forgiving herself and the perceived justice of guilt and self-punishment. Nothing here is black and white. The characters are human and flawed. You will find yourself rooting for the protagonist in one chapter and being frustrated with her in the next. Alice Hoffman's use of underlying psychology in creating her characters is one of my favorite things about her books.
The Midnight Library is another book I would not have picked up on my own if it hadn't been for the fact that it was a book group selection. I almost never read fantasy. I typically don't like it but this book had enough redeeming messages in it that I was able to still consider it a worthwhile and recommendable read. The premise is that everyone has their own Midnight Library which is magical and full of countless books. Every book holds a different possibility and a different version of that person's life. It is a really interesting and thought-provoking concept. If you had the opportunity, would you choose a different book for your life? What choices in your life would you repeat? What decisions, if any, do you regret? What would your life be like if you had made alternate decisions? This is a great book for inspiring discussion.
Every year I like to read or reread a classic. I had never read The Old Man And The Sea so this was the choice for this year. It is easy to see why this book is a time-honored tale. It is the story of an old man that catches the biggest fish of his life only to lose it. It is the story of old age and youth, perseverance and struggle, it is about losing and acceptance of defeat, wisdom, and luck. These themes and Hemingway's writing make this book truly timeless.
And then there was The Lake House by Kate Morton. This is one of those books that has a story within a story. The earlier story is of a family in Cornwell, England right before World War I. It is a love story between two people that come together, get married, move to the country, build a home, and start their family. They, are the Edevane family and they have three daughters and then a son. During a summer celebration at their home, the infant son goes missing from his crib and is never seen again.
Move forward seventy years and a young female detective from London comes out to Cornwell from London to visit her grandfather. She discovers the old lake house where the wealthy Edevane's lived with their children and staff. She is consumed by the story and makes it her mission to try and solve this mystery. Just when you think you have this mystery figured out, there are new twists and turns that will keep you guessing until the last chapter.
I had never read anything by Kristin Hannah but after reading The Great Alone, I am making it my goal to read everything she has ever written. This was my favorite book of 2022. The scene is 1970's Alaska. A POW from the Viet Nam war is suffering from PTSD, something that at that time was barely acknowledged and grossly underdiagnosed. He returns to his wife and daughter in the US with the deed to a small piece of land in Alaska that was bequeathed to him by a fellow POW that didn't survive. The story is told from the daughter's point of view and she describes the brutally harsh winters and the kindness of neighbors that help them survive their first winter. Through her, we see the horror of her father's demons and the tragedy of her mother's subservience. But we also see the hope of selfless love and an open heart.
The Alaskan land is another central element in this moving novel of perseverance and plays a significant role in this novel of survival, and resilience. This is an absolute best-of-the-best read.
And yes, I did find time to squeeze in another Kristin Hannah book. This one, Night Road, at first sounds a lot like Alice Hoffman's Faithful because both involve a tragic car accident. But that is where the similarity ends. The story is told from two points of view. The first is the mother, Jude Farraday. Jude is a forty-something upper middle-class helicopter mom who has invested herself in the lives of her twin children, Mia and Zach. Having raised three kids myself, I identified with Jude even though she was much more involved in her children's lives than I had been. But I could understand her intentions were good even if they were sometimes selfish. She seemed to be considered by everyone as a "wonderful mother".
The second point of view is from Lexi, a young disadvantaged girl that has been in and out of foster homes but is now settled in comfortably with an elderly family member. She befriends Mia on the first day of high school then and falls in love with Mia's brother, Zach. Jude welcomes Lexi into their family with open arms and the world is perfect until one night during Lexi's senior year. On that night their world stops. Tragedy occurs, blame is cast, and relationships are severed. It is a story of self-destruction, acceptance, growth, and forgiveness. You can bet there will be more books from this author in my 2023 list.
What are you reading and recommending? You can message me or leave a comment in the comment section here on the blog. I'd love to hear from you.
Wishing all of you a happy, healthy, and productive New Year.
* The book Anthem by Noah Hawley is most likely the very worst book I have ever tried to read. I gave it about one hundred pages and threw in the towel. I put it on my "Pass On This One" shelf on Good Reads.