Hot Books III – 2010

Judith Stokes
Electronic Resources/
Serials Librarian and
Associate Professor

In April, Judith Stokes reviewed the most frequently borrowed fiction books in the Browsing Collection of Adams Library. In May, she checked out the top 10 nonfiction books. Now, she’ll review 10 of her favorites. Perhaps among these books you will find some to put on your summer reading list.

1. “Olive Kitteridge: A Novel in Stories” by Elizabeth Strout won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It is called “a novel in stories,” because each of the 13 stories can stand alone, while together they comprise about 30 years in the life of the fictional town of Crosby, Maine. Olive Kitteridge, math teacher, wife, and mother, takes center stage only now and then. Blundering through life, frequently just as lonely among her family and neighbors as away from them, Olive is fond of schadenfreude, but is occasionally surprised by real compassion in herself and others. Bits of humor, love and loyalty, life, death, aging, and loss fill the episodes of this extraordinary novel.

2. “The Story of Edgar Sawtelle” by David Wroblewski is a tragedy in the classical sense. If you really would not care to think about Hamlet one more time, put down the book now, because this is one of those rare novels that compels you to keep reading, not because of the suspense, although there is that, but because it is a world in itself. It merely follows one family, their vision, their breed of dog, and yet it is an epic of hope, loyalty, and betrayal. But dogs? Yes, dogs, in their innocence and their extraordinary devotion to humans, they are more than the family business, but this is not Lassie. This is Hamlet in Wisconsin, a tragedy in the form of a beautifully written novel.

3. “The Help” by Kathryn Stockett offers up the gritty realities and the social humiliations that empowered segregation in the American South of the early 1960s. Stockett tells the story of three women in Jackson, Mississippi, with such extraordinary intimacy and intensity that the fate of these three keeps the reader in constant suspense, echoing the racial tensions of the time. An aspiring writer hopes to write a book about the lives of black domestic help, the women who love and raise white children, to collect both the good and the bad stories about how they are treated by the white families who depend on their labor. The act of telling those stories, down home in-the-home stories, even anonymously, is at once exhilarating and terrifying for everyone involved.

4. “The Lacuna: A Novel” by Barbara Kingsolver unfolds as a series of diary entries, letters, newspaper clippings and such, documenting the life of Harrison W. Shepherd. Son of an American father and Mexican mother, he grew up mostly in Mexico, a lonely child with a habit of writing everything down. His first job is mixing plaster for Diego Rivera, which leads to a place as cook and typist in the home of Rivera and his wife, Frida Kahlo. Soon Leon Trotsky arrives as Rivera's houseguest, a fugitive from Stalin's assassins. Getting to know these famous people from the kitchen/office, and surviving the violence that follows Trotsky is just the beginning. Returning to the U.S. during World War II, finding his father has died, then discovering his career as an author of historical novels, leads to success until it leads to the House Un-American Activities Committee. Kingsolver has given us a fascinating tale of an ordinary man, his two countries, and his two careers, in extraordinary times.

5. “The Year of the Flood” by Margaret Atwood recalls the spellbinding dystopian world of “Oryx and Crake,” Atwood's last novel. She transports the reader to a future world of extreme weather and rising seas, staggering economic disparity, secure corporate enclaves surrounded by lawless “pleeblands” and eco-terrorist cells. The memories and the fate of some of the “Oryx and Crake” characters are intertwined, yet each novel stands alone. “The Year of the Flood” has a thoroughly new voice; the story is told by two very different women, both survivors. Both lived among the “God's Gardeners,” a Christian environmentalist sect, who have long prophesied the “waterless flood,” the Noachian event, ultimately a pandemic, so the two women have been trained to survive and to preserve life. Atwood's vision is both human and humane, fantastic and much too real.

6. “Homer & Langley” by E. L. Doctorow is a fiction inspired by the true lives of the Collyer brothers, whose name became associated with a syndrome, worse than mere hoarding, also called disposophobia, a fear of throwing anything away. The two reclusive brothers, famed for the 130 tons of rubbish that had to be removed from their Manhattan mansion after they died, are, in Doctorow's world, stalwarts of their physical and mental handicaps. The voice of Homer, who “was not always blind,” is ever amazed by events, from World War I through Prohibition, the Great Depression, and war after war, but is finally silenced inside the barricades Langley has built to protect them both.

7. “What It Is” by Lynda Barry is a montage of varied written and visual texts, full of drawings, collages, hand-writing, shifting margins, overlapping text and text boxes. Part memoir, part philosophy, part writing lessons, this book explores the transition from childhood creativity to adult self-consciousness, contemplates thought and image, memory and recollection, and alternative ways of structuring sentences, paragraphs and pages. It is all about writing and how to do it creatively.

8. “The Man Who Loved China: the Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom” by Simon Winchester profiles Joseph Needham, CH ScD FRS FBA Hon FRCP. Winchester captures Needham’s personality with all the eccentricities, the nudism and the communism, the passion for women and for research, all included. As a young biochemist and Cambridge don, Needham conceived a project to visit his mistress' native China and research the history of science there that so substantially preceded similar scientific development in the West. His magnum opus, the 27-volume “Science and Civilisation in China” came of a life filled with adventure, making him a perfect subject for best-selling author, journalist, broadcaster and traveler Simon Winchester.

9. “What Now” by Ann Patchett is just the right book for anyone who is young, or remembers ever having been young! Seriously, Patchett's 2006 commencement address at Sarah Lawrence College, slightly expanded here, speaks warmly and wisely to everyone about life and change, about expectations and experiences, all in a direct personal tone. Even if you are not considering your next step just now, this short (112 pages) chat with Ms. Patchett will be well worth your time.

10. “Beautiful Boy: a Father's Journey through His Son's Meth Addiction” by David Sheff follows this successful journalist, twice married father of three children, from the time he discovers his oldest son is addicted to methamphetamines until his own recovery from a brain hemorrhage. It is a journey which he comes to associate with his long-standing inability to “accept the things he cannot change.” The transformation of an intelligent, talented child into a starving, shaking, degraded and disgusting addict is every parent's nightmare, anyway. Sheff explains how meth, with its unique ability to destroy brain functions within a few years, imposes a tighter timeline even than heroin or cocaine, adding a greater stress to every relapse, and a greater fear that months, or even years, of recovery may be reversed in a matter of weeks.