One of my favorite gifts to give (and get) at Christmastime is a good book. Although I realize that the more organized among us have already finished their Christmas shopping, I’m guessing some of you are like me and still have some holiday scrambling to do. I’m hoping that I can share some of my favorite reads this year and then you can do the same. Maybe we can help each other scratch a few gifts off of our Christmas shopping list!
I’m going to offer up suggestions in four categories: fiction, nonfiction, YA fiction, and Mormon books. If you’d like to suggest a title that doesn’t fall neatly into any of these categories (poetry, picture books, etc.), please feel free.
Caveat: We all have different opinions about what constitutes “appropriate” literature. Please do your own due diligence in researching any titles I might suggest, or that might be suggested in our comments, before purchasing a title.
State of Wonder by Ann Patchett. This book was my favorite read of the year. The novel tells the story of Dr. Marina Singh, a pharmaceutical researcher who travels to the Amazon jungle after receiving news of the death of a colleague. She’s also been tasked to locate Dr. Anneck Swenson, a renowned gynecologist who’s been receiving funding from Singh’s company to develop a fertility drug that will enable women to have babies well into old age. State of Wonder is thought-provoking, gripping, beautifully written, with a conclusion that’s simultaneously exhilarating, devastating, and absolutely right. The demanding and intelligent but emotionally compromised Dr. Swenson is one of the best female characters I’ve read in a long time.
The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer. This novel is an epic work of fiction with an old-fashioned feel: it isn’t afraid to linger on a scene or allow a character’s thoughts to ramble. Due to the relatively slow pace of the novel’s beginning, I started and stopped three times before actually diving in. But once I dived, I kept diving deeper until I was utterly swept up in the lives of these Hungarian Jews before and during WWII. The main character, Andras, is a rural Hungarian Jew who arrives in Paris on an architecture scholarship and falls in love with a beautiful and mysterious older woman, a dance instructor named Klara. The first half of the book is a classic, and very satisfying, romance. The second half of the novel details the horrors of WWII, from the Nazi occupation of France to Hungary’s alliance with Germany and the subsequent destruction of its Jewish population. The amount of research that must have gone into this novel staggers me, but I’m so grateful for it. Time and time again I found myself thinking, “I had no idea.” Excellent book, beautifully written, powerful and valuable and visceral. Loved it.
Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose by Flannery O’Connor. Segullah’s staff read this book for our annual retreat, and after devouring it I couldn’t believe it had taken me so long to discover this collection of essays by one of my favorite short fiction writers. I’ve always loved O’Connor’s short stories and recognized her genius, but these collected essays — all written (or, in the case of speeches, delivered) when she was a relatively young woman in her twenties and thirties — simply thrilled me with their insight, humor, and piercing vision. The last few sections of the book that focused on writing as a Catholic were particularly valuable: I saw so many parallels between the Catholic writing community, as well as Catholic readers, of the 19050s and 60s, and Mormon writers and readers today. Extraordinarily valuable, especially for those interested in the intersections between the life of a writer and a life of faith.
Since we’re trying to come up with gift ideas, I asked my husband to let me know his favorite nonfiction reads this year, in case you want a more manly perspective. His picks are:
Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World by Liaquat Ahmed. (And now I’m just copying and pasting the summary from Amazon here.) “It is commonly believed that the Great Depression that began in 1929 resulted from a confluence of events beyond any one person’s or government’s control. In fact, as Liaquat Ahamed reveals, it was the decisions made by a small number of central bankers that were the primary cause of that economic meltdown, the effects of which set the stage for World War II and reverberated for decades. As yet another period of economic turmoil makes headlines today, Lords of Finance is a potent reminder of the enormous impact that the decisions of central bankers can have, their fallibility, and the terrible human consequences that can result when they are wrong.”
The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon by David Grann. My 15 year old son read this after my husband finished it and really liked it as well. Here’s another Amazon blurb: “In 1925, the legendary British explorer Percy Fawcett ventured into the Amazon jungle, in search of a fabled civilization. He never returned. Over the years countless perished trying to find evidence of his party and the place he called “The Lost City of Z.” In this masterpiece of narrative nonfiction, journalist David Grann interweaves the spellbinding stories of Fawcett’s quest for “Z” and his own journey into the deadly jungle, as he unravels the greatest exploration mystery of the twentieth century.”
It’s been a really big year for people-I-kinda-know in YA fiction. Two of these authors I know because of their Mormon lit connections, and the other two I know through grad school, but despite the prejudice inherent in knowing (or kinda knowing) all four of these authors, their books are worth checking out.
Variant by Robison Wells. Wells has headed up the Whitney Awards for many years and done so with a great deal of professionalism and good will for his fellow Mormon writers, so I went into this novel really wanting to like it. (I don’t know Wells personally, really — just through the few interactions I had with him regarding the Whitneys — but he left a really good impression.) I was so pleased to discover that I would have devoured this fast-paced read even if I had no idea who’d written it. The main character of Variant, Benson Fisher, finds himself imprisoned in a boarding school along with scores of other misfit teens. No adults are present, but the students are constantly monitored by video surveillance and are under threat of punishment that equals death if they try to escape. The plot is strong and I found myself surprised more than once, which is impressive since I went in expecting there to be a twist and hunting for it. If I stay up past my bedtime turning pages? That’s a successful novel. Because I love my bedtime.
Crossed (and Matched) by Ally Condie. I also know Ally — sitting at the same table at the Whitney awards was where I met her, as a matter of fact! — but if you haven’t read Matched, you’re in luck, because you’ll get the chance to read both novels in one big gulp. Ally is a very talented writer. Her language is spare and poetic and luminous, and the dystopian world she created in both these novels is one that sucked me in. I especially love her treatment of Southern Utah landscape in book two. This is a great series for a teenage girl, but grownups will enjoy it as well.
Stupid Fast by Geoff Herbach. I went to grad school with Herbach, so when I saw this book on the shelf at Barnes and Noble I picked it up. I haven’t read it myself, but my 15 year old son LOVED it. Tore through it. My son is a voracious reader, though, so the real kicker was when he loaned it to a friend who’s a very reluctant reader and he tore through it too. It’s the story of an awkward 15-year-old who goes through an amazing growth spurt, gets “stupid fast,” and suddenly finds himself inhabiting the body (and the world) of a jock on the football team. It’s more that a sports book, though — it’s a coming of age novel, and one that really rang true to my own son. (He did say there was a little bit of language and a few other things, but nothing he doesn’t encounter in an average high school day. Still, you might want to read it first.)
Sparrow Road by Sheila O’Connor. Sheila was my professor and mentor at Hamline University and one of the best writers I know. This is her first published piece of middle grade fiction (her general fiction is wonderful too, check it out). This story of a young girl’s summer stay at an artist’s retreat is full of heart and color, and there’s plenty of “mystery” to keep young readers reading. Sparrow Road is an excellent pick for tween girls and for their parents, too: it’s lyrical, luminous, and wise.
Mormon Books. (I’m including fiction and nonfiction in these picks, since the books I mention here are of general interest to a Mormon audience.)
The Place of Knowing: A Spiritual Autobiography by Emma Lou Thayne. Every woman I know who is interested in Mormonism and writing and how the two intersect sees Thayne as a foremother of sorts. Thayne is a poet (best known, I think, as the author of “Where Can I Turn for Peace?”), an essayist, a teacher, a former member of the Young Women’s General Board and, for many years, one of the only female voices on the board of the Deseret News. Now in her eighties, her writing remains strong and clear, full of insight and poetry — in fact, Thayne’s poems are interspersed throughout. This book is all about living a spiritual life, but there is a mystical element to Thayne’s Mormon faith that might surprise some readers accustomed to more traditional LDS autobiographies. I came away from the book with a new understanding of the power of prayer and an increased desire to invite the spirit into my own life.
The Death of a Disco Dancer by David Clark. Clark’s novel, one of Zarahemla Books’ newest offerings, is a great gift for any grown-up Mormon reader, but I think that Mormon readers of a certain age will find this novel particularly compelling. (If the title rings a bell, for example? If you’re a child of the 80s? You’ll like this book.) This novel centers on Todd Whitman, alternating between the summer of his 7th grade year in 1981 and a contemporary storyline where, as a man in his forties, he returns to his childhood home to help his dying mother. Clark vividly captures the perils and joys of early adolescence in the 1980s, but this novel is more than a witty reminiscence. By turns heartbreaking and hilarious, it is a meditation on the meaning of sacrifice and the transforming responsibility of familial love. This novel is a great example of artful, realistic Mormon storytelling — the kind of writing I hope that Mormon readers will support.
Two Mormon Books I Haven’t Read Yet But Want To. (Hey, maybe these can be gifts for me?)
Monsters and Mormons, edited by William Morris and Eric Jepson. All sorts of awesome Mormon writers are represented in this “anthology of peculiar and marvelous tales.” Including Segullah’s very own Emily Milner! This is a great Christmas present for the Mormon reader who enjoys speculative fiction.
Flunking Sainthood by Jana Reiss. Although this book isn’t overtly Mormon (it’s marketed to a general population), it’s written by a Mormon intent on devoting an entire year to becoming more saintly. I’ve always enjoyed Reiss’s writing and have heard lots of great things about this memoir. If any of you have read it let me know what you thought.
Whew! Okay. There are my suggestions. What are yours?