I’m going to Brooklyn to visit my daughter, and as with every excursion to the “Big Apple,” I make a list of must-see places. Usually I include a tea house, a photo gallery, and a farmer’s market. (If you’re a locavore, NYC’s markets are BEYOND compare!). But this time I’m making a reservation at Prune--Gabrielle Hamilton’s acclaimed West Village restaurant. Coincidentally, Hamilton is also the author of Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef. Her book, like her food (or so I’ve heard), is exceptional!
Hamilton’s childhood in rural Pennsylvania was unconventional and idyllic. Her father was a stage designer, frequently involved with Broadway productions; her mother, French and a former dancer, spent her days aproned in front of a six-burner stove. The clan lived in a crumbling, 19th-century silk mill. They regularly hosted legendary parties—complete with spring lamb roasting on a spit and an endless variety of creative themes.
I don’t know about you, but I’m always drawn to accounts of people who forgo traditional lives to pursue the unknown. Some make the move to remote locations; others choose to follow unusual career paths. In The Dirty Life: On Farming, Food and Love, author Kristin Kimball leaves behind what many might label an enviable existence as a freelance writer in New York City to stake a claim on a 500-acre, ramshackle farm.
Kristin’s been assigned to write an article about Mark, who’s making a name for himself in the ever-changing world of farming. Rather than being able to interview her subject—who remains on a constant treadmill of chores—she finds herself hoeing broccoli and slaughtering pigs…all in her urban finest. The next day brings her no closer to Mark as she’s assigned to work the tomato fields. With time running out and only a few scribbles recorded, Kristin implores Mark to answer her questions. Their brief encounter will lead to a major life change for them both.
Emma has just graduated from college when she meets Dexter. She’s smitten with his beauty and drawn to his easy self-confidence. For his part, Dexter realizes that Emma is probably the most intriguing person he has ever met. That’s high praise, indeed, from a guy to whom women flock in great numbers. One Day by David Nicholls follows the two over the course of almost twenty years.
While Emma has plans to change the world, life simply happens—and in a big way—to her handsome friend. Despite her considerable talents, Emma can’t seem to jumpstart her career. Dexter, on the other hand, falls into a media job. His natural attributes make him an instant success, and considerable fame and fortune follow shortly. But what Dexter was certain was the path to happiness leads him instead to a hollow existence.
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Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese--Focusing on the world of medicine, this epic first novel by well-known doctor/author Verghese (My Own Country) follows a man on a mythic quest to find his father. It begins with the dramatic birth of twins slightly joined at the skull, their father serving as surgeon and their mother dying on the table. The horrorstruck father vanishes, and the now separated boys are raised by two Indian doctors living on the grounds of a mission hospital in early 1950s Ethiopia. The boys both gravitate toward medical practice, with Marion the more studious one and Shiva a moody genius and loner. Also living on the hospital grounds is Genet, daughter of one of the maids, who grows up to be a beautiful and mysterious young woman and a source of ruinous competition between the brothers. After Marion is forced to flee the country for political reasons, he begins his medical residency at a poor hospital in New York City, and the past catches up with him.
The medical background is fascinating as the author delves into fairly technical areas of human anatomy and surgical procedure. (Library Journal)
If you like Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese, you may like these titles.
Away: a novel by Amy Bloom
"The story begins in Russia in the 1920s. Lillian Leyb survives the massacre of her family and runs away to New York City to live with a cousin. Ever practical, she allows herself to become the mistress of a star of the Jewish theater, and, although she's not happy, life is not so bad. However, when she finds out that her daughter Sophie may still be alive in Siberia, she leaves everything she has and begins the arduous journey home. She rides trains hiding in broom closets and servicing conductors. She climbs on boats and walks the Yukon trail headed for the Bering Strait and probably death. But she has to try." (Booklist Review)
Beneath the Lion's Gaze by Maaza Mengiste
The brutal 1970s civil war in Ethiopia is the dramatic setting in this first novel, told from searing personal viewpoints that humanize the politics from many sides and without slick messages. The author, born in Addis Ababa and now living in New York, tells the story in unforgettable detail: between Emperor Haile Selassi in his lush palace set against the famine outside, captured in the image of a child gnawing on a stone. The focus is on the family of physician Hailu, first before the revolution and then after the brutal regime takes over. His older son tries to lead a quiet life and look the other way, until Hailu is taken and tortured. The younger son joins the mass demonstrations, exhilarated that change has come, then deflated when he confronts the new tyranny. The clear narrative voices also include the women in the family and others on all sides, who experience the graphic violence, both in the old feudal system, where a rich kid regularly rapes a servant, and in the new dictatorship with torture in the name of freedom. (Booklist)
April 9, 1975, and Carol Braithwaite, a known prostitute, has been savagely murdered. And if that crime isn't heinous enough, her emaciated four-year-old son had been locked in with the dead body for an estimated three weeks. In Kate Atkinson’s Started Early, Took My Dog, the Braithwaite case remains unsolved, but over 30 years later promises to disrupt any number of disparate lives.
There’s Tracy Waterhouse. She and her partner discovered Carol’s body and her traumatized son in 1975. Tracy always felt that certain details of the case didn’t make sense. Why was the house locked from the outside? Who had had the key? Why did Carol’s son simply vanish into thin air? And, why wasn’t the police department more actively investigating the case? Tracy, now retired from the police department and never married, witnesses a young child being mistreated by a street addict and, on a whim, buys the girl with money saved for house renovations.
Paris retains an eternal allure for the creative. And the gifted expatriates who flocked to the City of Lights in the 1920s often felt the hallowed pursuit of their individual muses justified unconventional personal behavior. The Paris Wife by Paula McLain chronicles the courtship and subsequent marriage of Hadley Richardson and Ernest Hemingway—a relationship strained and eventually damaged by their friends’ hedonistic lifestyles.
Hadley, who was seven years his senior, met her future husband in Chicago. Although quite the ladies’ man, Hemingway was immediately drawn to her wholesome beauty, even temperament, and courage. Hadley’s unconditional support bolstered Hemingway, a man already plagued by multiple demons, and gave him the companionship he needed to wholeheartedly pursue his writing.
In Georgia Bottoms, Georgia has a lot on her plate--a mother one appetizer short of being “out to lunch,” an unemployed brother more off the wagon than on, and a series of clandestine lovers scheduled six out of seven nights a week.
Although she’s always been able to juggle her unusual responsibilities, Georgia’s Saturday night man, Eugene Hendrix--who also happens to be the town’s (married) preacher--finds himself riddled with guilt. That guilt, in turn, results in a confession to his wife, Brenda. Eager for retaliation, Brenda demands that Georgia’s secrets be revealed to the entire town…via the church pulpit. Georgia employs her vast feminine wiles to avert a last minute disaster. Her next step is to arrange surreptitious relocation for Eugene (and his family) to another congregation…far, far away.
Do you thrive on books that keep you guessing to the last page? Does a dark novel set your heart racing with anticipation? Then let me recommend The Thirteenth Tale. But to achieve the optimal reading experience, schedule time on a day when the sky is an ominous shade of gray, an angry wind howls outside your window and your electricity flickers haphazardly. The moment is then prime to open your copy of Diane Setterfield’s debut offering.
Margaret Lea lives a solitary, sheltered life working in her father’s bookstore. Her greatest pleasure lies in surrounding herself with books, both rare and commonplace. She also dabbles in compiling short biographies of obscure but deceased individuals. Out of the blue, Margaret receives a mysterious letter from Vida Winter, one of England’s most cherished writers. Her request is that Margaret document her life story.
Unfamiliar with Winter’s novels, Margaret tentatively reads one title, only to find she’s unable to stop until completing the author’s entire collection of works. She agrees to visit Winter. The elderly writer has apparently fabricated exotic tales about herself over the years, but with only a short time to live, she now wants the truth told.
If you’re determined to avoid any books guaranteed to trigger tears, then forget The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein. I, however, am a sucker for an exceptional dog story and accustomed to the accompanying waterworks. From White Fang through Marley and Me to A Dog Year, the unconditional love, loyalty and goodness of (wo)man’s best friend keep me coming back for more.
Occasionally you’re lucky enough to find a book you just can’t put down. Its gripping plot grabs hold of you and, chapter by chapter, propels you along. Equally compelling is that rare title where the action isn’t paramount, but the key players are so real you find yourself reading into the wee hours. The Good Daughters, by Joyce Maynard, falls into the second category with its unforgettable characters.