February 20, 2005
Today, my not-quite-annual cabin fever book list. Some of the books are new, a couple are old, but all are ones I enjoyed in the past year.
1. "Ghosting" by Jennie Erdal. For years Erdal worked for a famous, flamboyant London publisher and writer. What did she do? No one knew until in this astonishing, very fun true story she reveals that she did all her boss' writing. Critically acclaimed novels. Non-fiction bestsellers. Newspaper columns. Love letters. Her words under his name. This book made several "best of" lists in England last year.
2. "Personal History" by Katharine Graham. Frank, humble and judiciously gossipy, Graham's autobiography begins as the story of an insecure woman overshadowed by men. Her father owned The Washington Post; he named her husband publisher. But when Graham's husband kills himself--a scene that still makes me shudder--she takes charge.
As the Post's publisher and owner, Graham steered the paper through the Watergate scandal, enjoyed spectacular wealth and knew everyone who was anyone. Yet her remarkable personal history is so much the history of the country and of women after World War II that my mother remarked after reading it, "I saw a lot of myself in her."
3. "An Unfinished Season" by Ward Just. North Shore debutante parties. Late nights in Chicago jazz clubs. A precollege summer romance between a 19-year-old boy and a Lincoln Park psychiatrist's daughter. Just's latest novel is partly a coming-of-age story, partly an evocation of Chicago in the 1950s. Like his other books--try "Jack Gance"--it derives drama more from psychological tension than big action while offering a glimpse of a high society most of us never enter.
4. "The Known World" by Edward P. Jones. The book's main character, Henry Townsend, is a plantation master and slave owner in Virginia just before the Civil War. He's also black. His mentor is his former white owner. In beautiful writing rooted in little-known history, Jones, an African-American, illuminates how issues of power, sex, love and property can't be neatly reduced to skin color. The book won the Pulitzer Prize.
5. "Truth and Beauty" by Ann Patchett. Before she wrote the bestseller "Bel Canto," Patchett was a student at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Her roommate was Lucy Grealy, a poet who was losing her face to cancer.
Lucy was insecure, arrogant, adoring, needy, wise, promiscuous and eventually strung out on heroin. She was also Patchett's best friend. Patchett's story of their love is emotional but unsentimental and so resonant that it may remind you of some friendship of your own.
6. "Leo Africanus" by Amin Maalouf. When I went to southern Spain last year, I was looking for a novel that would give me a compact, entertaining but credible version of Spain's Moorish--i.e., Islamic--history. This book, by a Lebanese writer who lives in Paris, did it. A prize-winner in France, it's the tale of Leo, a Moorish Everyman who starts life in medieval Spain then makes his way through Morocco, Turkey, Egypt and Italy, his adventurous life following the trail of his people.
7. "Living to Tell the Tale," by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Even if magical realism makes your head hurt, you could really like this book by the Colombian Nobel laureate who wrote "One Hundred Years of Solitude."
With the disciplined ease of a great storyteller, Garcia Marquez recounts his life as a student and budding writer--cafes, cigarettes, buddies, bordellos, his cherished Faulkner novels--as well as the real-life Colombian politics, people, legends, marshes and mountains that populate his novels.
8. "Chronicles" by Bob Dylan. You know who this guy is. But you don't fully know until you've read his autobiography.
9. "The News from Paraguay" by Lily Tuck. So you're not interested in Paraguay? I wasn't much either until I picked up Tuck's historical novel. It's the fact-based story of Francisco Solano, who in 1854 seduces a bourgeois Irish divorcee in Paris and persuades her to follow him--along with her horse, her piano and her Limoges china--to swampy Paraguay, where he becomes dictator. I imagine a movie with Antonio Banderas and Kirsten Dunst.
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