Best Books Of 2016

Author and FOFriend, Linda Wolfe, recommends five books for the new year.

FOF award-winning author, Linda Wolfe, recently published her powerful book, My Daughter, Myself: An Unexpected Journey. She has published eleven books and has contributed to numerous publications including New York Magazine, The New York Times, and served the board of the National Book Critics Circle for many years. Her latest reviews capture everything from 1960s Kabul to present-day hostages in Somalia.

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NUTSHELL
by Ian McEwan

Nan Talese/Doubleday.

If you haven’t already read this, put buying it at the top of your To Do list. And give it to yourself, not someone else, though that’s not a bad idea, either. With Nutshell, the masterful McEwan, of Atonement and Saturday fame, has produced another masterpiece. This, despite its absurd premise – or maybe because of it. The absurdity? The story is told by a foetus.   

He’s a clever little fella. Knows all about wine, especially his mother’s favorites, French burgundy and a good Sancerre, which come to him, he explains, “decanted through her healthy placenta.” Knows too all about  Norway, with its generous social provisions, and Italy with its excellent regional cuisine. How is this possible? It’s because, he tells us, “I listen. My mother likes the radio and prefers talk to music…I hear, above the launderette din of stomach and bowels, the news, wellspring of all bad dreams. I listen closely to analysis and dissent.”

He also listens to his mother’s conversations. And, poor little eavesdropper, he overhears her plotting with her lover, his uncle, to murder his father. She is Trudy. He is Claude. Get it?  Nutshell is, in a nutshell, Shakespeare’s Hamlet as experienced and related by an unborn baby. This one sure doesn’t like Claude. “Not everyone knows what it is to have your father’s rival’s penis inches from your nose,” he says. “By this late stage [of pregnancy], they should be refraining on my behalf.  Courtesy, if not clinical judgment, demands it. I close my eyes. I grit my gums. I brace myself against the uterine walls. This turbulence would shake the wings off a Boeing.”

The book is hilarious. Its also wondrous, with every sentence chiseled to perfection – perhaps in homage to Shakespeare. Most delicious of all, Nutshell is a page turner. Its suspense builds and climbs as we wonder if this older-than-his-years, or even older-than-his-months little creature who’s telling us the story will be able to prevent the murder.

51IV0du+hBL._SX405_BO1,204,203,200_THE NEWS OF THE WORLD
by Paulette Jiles

William Morrow.

This book had me reading on the edge of my seat and metaphorically biting my nails. A historical novel, it’s set in the wilds of Texas in the years immediately following the Civil War. The story is told by elderly Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, who makes his living by driving his covered wagon to isolated small towns where he reads the news of the world to settlers with no access to newspapers. One day, he’s asked by a federal agent to take on the task of transporting to her remaining family members a ten-year-old child who, at the age of six, had been taken captive by the Kiowa Indians after they scalped her German-American parents.

The girl is a handful. She doesn’t want to be rescued. She considers herself a Kiowa, and has become very attached to her captors. (Apparently, we learn in an endnote, this was common among children taken by Indians; very few of them wished to be rescued and returned to relatives.)  She has no memory of what her original name was, so Kidd gives her a name: Johanna.  

At first the Captain finds the girl, with her blond braids flaunting bits of stick, her immobile face, and her icy blue-eyed stare, “malign.” She finds him hateful, and proves to be a kicking, screaming, disobedient passenger, always trying to run away. But after they are attacked by truly malign men, and against great odds they together manage to fight them off, the unlikely pair bonds. In time, Johanna, who has learned to call herself “Cho-Hana,” comes to love the “Kep-dun,” who one day she dubs “Kontah,” Grandfather in the Kiowa language. The Captain himself has learned to admire his spunky little charge, and like a real grandfather, dotes on her and longs to see her have a happy future. But trouble awaits when the pair finally makes it to San Antonio, where Johanna’s remaining relatives live.

Jiles is a poet, and she knows how to use her music to play upon the heartstrings. I defy you not to shed a tear, as I did, at what happens to Johanna when she is reunited with her family – and to pray that once again the Captain will find the strength to rescue her.

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51IV0du+hBL._SX405_BO1,204,203,200_COMMONWEALTH
by Ann Patchett

HarperCollins.

Patchett is unpredictable as a novelist, and I don’t mean as regards her art, which is reliably wondrous. I’m referring to the kind of tale she tells in each book, its whos and wheres and wherefores. Commonwealth starts out in California as the story of a married couple who fall in love with other people, divorce their partners, and try to meld their unwieldy bunch of children, three of his, two of hers, into a viable extended family. They’re successful at this. The children become very close. But they are uneasy with their new stepparents and angry at the parents who broke up their original families.

What we get is a tapestry, a complex and exquisite weave of different threads, in which each thread is the tale of one of those children or parents relating what happens to them over a long period of time. Fifty years, to be exact, enough time for the children to grow up and old, and the parents to grow aged. There are lots of characters, lots of threads, a sister who becomes a lawyer, another who becomes a Zen monk, a misfit of a brother who bears a burden of guilt all his life about a tragedy that befell another brother, and, most memorably, the gentle Franny, who falls in love with a writer much older than she is and makes the mistake of telling him the story of her family, only to see him use it, to her embarrassment, and for his own self-aggrandizement. Patchett, treating all her characters with abounding compassion, makes every one of them so vivid and recognizable that you’ll be as fascinated by how they develop and change over the years as you are in how time treats your friends.   

Interestingly, at first Commonwealth seems like a book about extended families, of which we have read many in recent years. But it turns out to be about something newer, and and more important. Patchett’s characters marry, and have children, and get divorced, and some of them remarry and acquire new children, and their children marry and have children, and some of them get divorced and remarried and also acquire new children, so that the “family” keeps growing and expanding. One of the book’s final, stunning scenes shows us that not only do today’s extended families grow ever larger, but that the very idea of family is changing.  When Franny’s mother, late in life, marries a man named Jack Dine, and Franny goes to their Christmas party, she realizes that she can’t keep everyone there straight. “She knew the Dine boys, that’s what they were called late into their fifties, but their wives and second wives confused her, their children, in some cases two sets, some grown and married, others still small…There were members of the Dine family who considered her in some vague sense to be a sister, a cousin, a daughter, an aunt. She couldn’t follow all the lines out in every direction: all the people to whom she was by marriage mysteriously related.”  

I think Commonwealth could well have been entitled, The Way We Live Now, like Trollope’s book of that title, for what it really is about is a world in which increasingly the very word family has come to seem something altogether new.  

51IV0du+hBL._SX405_BO1,204,203,200_THE RETURN: Fathers, Sons and the Land In Between
by Hisham Matar

Random House.

In 2007, when I first fell in love with the work of Libyan-born writer Hisham Matar, it was because I had just read his novel, In the Country of Men, a polished, psychologically astute novel about a little boy who inadvertently betrays his father to the jailers of a repressive regime. The child’s grief at the loss of his father’s presence, plus the burden of guilt he feels for causing that loss, were haunting. I did not know until I read Matar’s eloquent memoir, The Return, that at the time he was writing In the Country, the author was himself struggling with grief over the loss of his own father to the repressive regime of Qaddaffi, and even struggling, with a kind of survivor’s guilt, what he calls, “the guilt of having lived a free life,” for he and the rest of his family had fled the Middle East to live zin exile in London.   

Matar’s father, Jaballah, had not had a free life. An outspoken opponent of the repressive Qaddaffi regime, he had been kidnapped in 1990, imprisoned, and after a few years during which he wrote letters to his family which were smuggled out of Libya by political supporters, never heard from again.  Was he still a prisoner, held in some miserable dungeon, like the one fellow prisoners called, “The Mouth of Hell”? Or was he dead? The uncertainty turned Matar, then nineteen years old, “into a bridled animal, cautious and quiet. I could not stop thinking of the detestable things that were surely happening to my father as I bathed, sat down to eat….I stopped speaking. I hardly left my London flat,” he writes, and, “You make a man disappear to silence him, but also to narrow the minds of those left behind, to pervert their soul and limit their imagination. When Qaddafi took my father, he placed me in a space not much bigger than the cell Father was in.”

During the years that followed the kidnapping, Matar, his mother, and his brother, Riad, spent endless hours trying to raise public awareness of what had happened to Jaballa, and to arouse British diplomats into finding out what they could about his whereabouts, all to no avail. So in 2012, after the fall of Qaddaffi and before Libya fell victim to competing militias including Al Qaida, when for a brief time the country was peaceful, Matar went there to see if he could learn something of his father’s fate.  

The Return is the story of that trip. Matar travels with his mother and brother, and the three of them manage to find and reunite with relatives they haven’t seen in years. We visit along with them, discovering the Libya that was, and its rich culture and fascinating traditions.

The book is heartbreaking. Matar learns of a prisoner who may or may not have been his father (but seems likely to have been), a man who recites Libyan poetry from his cell a night, and then one night is heard no more. He learns the details of Qaddaffi’s notorious 1996 massacre of twelve hundred prisoners (his father was most likely one of the men brutally killed that day). And he learns how his father, surviving for many years in the most horrendous circumstances, became a symbol to his fellow prisoners of all that was once steadfast and noble in Libya.

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51IV0du+hBL._SX405_BO1,204,203,200_SWING TIME
by Zadie Smith

Penguin Press.

I’m not a big fan of Elena Ferrante. Perhaps it’s the fault of the translator, but I find the language of her acclaimed Neopolitan novels flat and dull. But of course, like everyone else, I’ve been a sucker for the books’ subject – female friendship — a matter so important to so many of us females, but so little written about.  Well, no need to slug through those Naples novels. Zadie Smith of White Teeth fame, arguably England’s most renowned novelist and certainly its liveliest stylist, has just come out with Swing Time, a novel about female friendship which pops and sizzles and rocks. It’s all here, the passionate attachments we women form with friends, first when we’re young, later on, throughout our lives, the way we measure our lives against those of our friends, the way our friendships support and sustain us and the way they can grow stale, can wither with time or distance or achievement, or die sudden deaths from envy or betrayal. Not to mention the way we never, no matter what, forget our first best friends.

The unnamed narrator of Swing Time lives in one of London’s depressing housing projects.  She meets the girl who will become her best friend, a pretty child named Tracey, also the denizen of a housing project, when she’s seven years old, at an after school dance group. “There were many other girls present,” she tells us, “but for obvious reasons we noticed each other, the similarities and differences, as girls will. Our shade of brown was exactly the same – as if one piece of tan material had been cut to make us both – and our freckles gathered in the same areas.” Each girl has one white and one black parent. The narrator’s mother is black, a Jamaican immigrant bent on climbing up and away from the projects through education and discipline, her father a white postal worker with little ambition beyond caring for his daughter. Tracey’s mother is white, permissive, free-spending, imbued with bad taste, and determined to see Tracey, who has talent as a dancer, become a star. Tracey’s father, who rarely comes to see his wife or his daughter, is a gambler and petty thief; he’s been in prison, but Tracey boasts when he’s absent that it’s because he’s a back-up dancer traveling with Michael Jackson.

The narrator shares Tracey’s love of dancing, though not her talent. No matter. Together they bond over dance VHS tapes, spending endless hours watching Fred Astaire and other hoofers do their routines. To both girls, it seems that their friendship is forever. But time and the differing aspirations of their mothers intervene. Tracey becomes not a star but a minor chorus line dancer and the narrator, after attending university, becomes the personal assistant of a famous singing star, an international celebrity patterned on Madonna and named Aimee.

Along the way the narrator will have boyfriends — I especially liked her college beau Rakim, who wore “skinny dreadlocks to his shoulders, Converse All Stars in all weather, little round Lennon glasses.  I thought he was the most beautiful man in all the world. He thought so, too.” She will travel, with Aimee, to distant places. New York offers to her “her first introduction to the possibilities of light, crashing through gaps in our curtains, transforming people and sidewalks and buildings into golden icons.” Gambia, where do-gooder Aimee wants to establish a girls school, offers “polygamy, misogyny, motherless children (my mother’s island childhood, only writ large, enshrined in custom).”  

Along the way, the book will offer perceptive reflections on race and class, plans will be realized and thwarted, there will be scandals and betrayals, babies dubiously adopted, lovers lost and stolen, and friendships that teeter and totter yet offer identity and belonging in a world that rarely does. This is an action-packed cinematic novel that also thinks hard on its swiftly running feet.

Would YOU still be working at 80?

barbara-taylor-bradford

Barbara Taylor Bradford received her highly-regarded OBE (Order of the British Empire) in 2007.

You’re 80, have good health, a wonderful husband, a fabulous home and oodles of money.  Why, for goodness sakes, are you still working from morning to night?  Because you’re renowned author Barbara Taylor Bradford, that’s why!

What drives you, at this point, to keep writing?
But what would I do? I have no children, so therefore, no grandchildren. My husband goes to an office every day. He’s a very busy man. He makes most of the TV movies and the mini series of my books. He’s just planning a couple at the moment, which is why he’s in London now. I went to work at 15 1/2. Do you think I can sit here staring at the TV all day long or going out with women who like to lunch and then go shopping?

I’m easily bored. When I finish the book I’m writing now, which will be at the end of July, Robert and I will go away for a couple of weeks. And then we’ll come to New York and WHAT WILL I DO?

I can’t just sit. I don’t want to do what others want to do. I want to write books.

What is it that you love so much about writing?
Getting engaged in a complex story about people who don’t exist, and I create lives.
Someone said to me recently, ‘oh, but you lead a very lonely life during the day.’ And I said, ‘No, it’s not lonely.’ I have a solitary occupation, or profession, if you like. But it’s not lonely. I’ve got all these people who I invent and they become real. They have lives I create and I sit there telling all these lies. It’s a great challenge to weave a story and create drama.

And there’s another thing. I actually really love being a best-selling novelist.
Creating people who don’t exist and making them feel real to the reader. Creating something from nothing, because that’s what it is. A novel is a monumental lie that has to have the absolute ring of truth if it’s going to be successful. And the lie, of course, is the story and the lives I invent and the dramas and the problems. And the underlying support that gives it authenticity is that I include a lot of real events and things that have happened in the world at different times. I use a lot of history.

I enjoy all of the razzmatazz that happens when a book comes out, especially in England. I go over to London where I promote the book and there are book and author events. People come to lunch, or a tea, or a coffee morning, and I give a talk. They buy a book. I sign the book. I love all that. My publisher in London always gives me a party. I’m very recognizable because I’m always in the paper. I’ve become a little bit of an icon, I suppose, after 35 years as a novelist. I did 58 interviews and 4 events on the last trip. So I love all the excitement, the parties and the fuss. That’s the bit of glamour that you get, when the book comes out. The rest of it is just the hard slog.

What’s your favorite book?
Of course, you always love your first published novel. I started about 4 or 5 novels that I never finished. I put them away and I didn’t like them until I had the idea for A Woman Of Substance. It’s sold 35 million copies worldwide and is still selling everywhere. It was a six-hour mini series and it spawned two other books, Hold the Dream and To Be The Best. You always love your first novel, I suppose, but the book launched my career as a novelist.

a-woman-of-substanceWhy are your books so popular?
I think the main thing is that I write about women very sympathetically so the reader has an empathetic feeling towards my protagonists. But I write about women who go out there and do it, who are women warriors, who conquer the world, who are women of substance, who go from being nothing to something important. And I don’t necessarily mean in work. I can write a novel about a woman who survives tragedy, like in Everything to Gain, the protagonist’s husband and children are killed in a carjacking and how she carries on afterwards and what happens to her and what she becomes. It isn’t always about a woman making money. That isn’t always the triumph. It’s also about overcoming adversity as well as making go of a career.

The women who I write about have become role models to other women, to the readers. Especially A Women of Substance, after reading it women will often say: ‘Oh, I decided to go out and go into the real estate business or I decided to sell my designs.’ Whole careers and lives have been built on some of that book. And I wasn’t sending a message. I just wanted to tell a good story.

What’s the best thing, Barbara, about having so much money?
I think we all want to have money. We have to pay our bills. I want to explain an attitude I have first. People say, ‘I think I can be a writer. I want to be rich and famous, just like you.’ I always say those are the wrong motivations. You won’t be if that’s what’s motivating you. You have to want to do the work and you have to want the challenge of doing your best work. Which is what motivates me.

Money lets you plan for your old age. I’m not old. I’m 49 actually, in spirit. And I don’t look 80 nor do I feel it. I was up at 4:30 this morning, dealing with my London editor. The best thing is that it gives you independence if you’re a woman. It’s nice to make money, if you’re working. I give to charity and do a little work for charities.
I am involved with Literacy Partners; Police Athletic League, which helps under-privileged children; Bob and I were one of the founding couples of the New York Pops and still support the orchestra; I am also on the board of the Authors Guild Foundation and give to that charity, too, and The St. George’s Society of New York, which is one of the oldest charities in the city. I also support charities in the UK, including one for missing and abducted children, called PACT.

Money gives you a certain amount of independence and security. Mind you, I’m married to a very successful man. We were never starving in the streets. It’s always nice to give a nice present to people you care about, to help them out if they have problems. It’s a nice feeling to be able to manage a lot of things without worrying.

What is your typical day like?
When I’m writing a book, I’m writing every day, seven days a week. When Bob is here, I get up at 5:30 or 6 and turn on the coffeepot and I get out his orange juice. And I have a coffee and a piece of toast and I come to my desk and I look it what I’ve written the day before because I try to always have some pages to edit because it pulls you back into the book.

I get him up at around 7:30 and I boil water and I stand and look at the clock as the eggs boil for 4 minutes. Then he gets his two boiled eggs and a kiss and then I leave him and get dressed. I’m in a dressing gown till then. I glance at the British papers, put them away (he’s got the American papers) and then I go to work. I start writing the minute I’ve given him his breakfast so I know I won’t be disturbed.

I go and put on pants and a tee shirt and I work until 12 o’clock. I do force myself to get up and walk around a little bit because one should. You get very stiff sitting. I stay at the desk until around 4 or 5 pm. I have a bit of lunch, a tomato salad with some endive or a piece of smoked salmon and a piece of toast. I eat very light at lunch.

If we’re going out, I’ll probably have a rest for an hour on the sofa in my office. I actually do fall asleep. I am a great believer in naps, borrowing that from Winston Churchill, who always believed in a nap after lunch. I do not work at night. I’ve always been a daytime worker.

pa_dallas1Do you go out a lot or do you like to cook at home?
We do go out several nights a week. We like to go to the theatre and the movies, but we see most of the movies at home. I love to cook because I don’t have to think. I like to make a lamb stew or chicken in the pot.

Do you use a computer to write?
When I look at the screen, I freeze. I lose my creativity. The screen seems to demand that I write instantly and I can’t do that. I use a very modern IBM Personal Wheelwriter 2, by LexMark. Or I write in pen and then it gets faxed to a typing agency and they put it on a disk. I use a computer to do the research, but I find I can’t write. I do a lot of research myself. I do a lot of handwriting on a yellow pad and then I type that up and edit the page. People who are very into computers kind of get hostile with me, and they say, ‘You don’t use a COMPUTER!!! Why?’ My answer is that I do it the easiest way for me and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

They must be threatened by something else.

By my talent (chuckle).

What’s the best thing about being 80? The worst?

The best things about being 80 are the wisdom and patience that I’ve acquired from my experiences. There’s nothing I don’t like about it. I have lots of younger friends, in their 40s, 50, 60s and 70s, who are up on everything. Many 80 year olds want to lie in the sun and relax, but I have a typical English complexion so I’m not interested in doing that.

Have you had plastic surgery?
No, I haven’t. Oh, well that’s not true. A number of years ago, and I’m going back 30 years, I had my eyes done. If you touch your eyelid, beneath your hard brow, I had rather heavy lids so I had a lot of skin removed and I could see better and, of course, I look better because I had too much skin on my eyelid. I’ve had fillers. I’ve always had a frown. So I have Botox on the forehead and on the bridge of my nose, which is very narrow. I’ve had Juvederm, on the lines that come down from the nostrils to the lips.

I do use a lot of creams. Evelyn Lauder, who died of cancer about two years ago, was a friend of mine and she told me to use Night Repair, in a brown bottle, and Re-Nutriv. And there are a number of their creams that I put on every night before I go to bed. My father, who died at 81, looked 60. I’m lucky in that way. I do use a lot of creams and Botox and filler.

How long does it take you to write a book?
I have to have a book in every July. It takes about nine months to write.

Do you go to many doctors? Take medications?
I might take a Tylenol occasionally, if I get a headache. I take Vitamin D and I take some pills for bone density. I am a great believer in Vitamin D. It’s very good for the legs and for walking. I still wear high heels. They were 3-inches, but then I could only go in and out of a car with them. But I do wear 2-inch heels and a lot of wedges, which are comfortable. My foot doctor in New York said ‘no woman should wear flat shoes,’ after I got tendonitis from wearing flats.

I eat carefully and I don’t want to put on weight. I’m not thin, by any means. I’m 5’6” and I’ve got flesh on me because I don’t like bone-thin women. I don’t eat a lot of red meat. I eat fish and chicken. I take care of myself and I walk a lot. I’m lucky that I’ve got good health, as I knock on wood.

Do you go to London a great deal?
Last year, we went to London from September through December, but we don’t keep a home there. We live at The Dorchester Hotel and have for 25 years. It’s much easier; we always have the same suite there.

I read that you’re selling your New York apartment.

We live in the fifties. We put it up for sale because it’s just too big. It’s 14 rooms.

{Reading} 11 Summer Must-Reads

Where do you get your book recommendations? Do you turn to the New York Times Review of Books–or to your best friend? We prefer to do a little bit of both. So, first we asked some of our FOFriends to share their favorite summer reads–their responses were unedited, candid and delightfully varied. Then we turned to a former New York Times book reviewer for a list that was a little more official (but still delightful). Read on for their fab picks and then tell us…
. . . where do you get the best book recommendations?


1. If You Were Here, by Jen Lancaster
FOF Debbie W.: “A funny novel that follows Mia, a Amish-zombie-teen-romance author and her husband Mac through the process of buying a fixer-upper house and renovating it — craziness ensues. Lancaster has populated Mia’s life with two wonderful best friends, haughty and cranky new neighbors, an unbelievable money-pit of a house and some laugh out loud moments!”

2. Hollywood Babylon, by Kenneth Anger
FOF islegirl74: “This book reveals all the truth and myths behind the scandals of old Hollywood — delicious insider dish on the movie stars of the golden age of cinema!”

3. The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson
FOF Carolecare: “I loved reading about The World’s Fair in Chicago over a century ago, since I grew up there. It’s a fascinating, suspenseful and true story about a serial killer who who uses the fair to lure his victims to their death. It takes a strong stomach to read some parts, but it makes you realize how fragile we all are.”

4. The Murder Room, by Michael Capuzzo
FOF islegirl74: “This is one of those books you can’t put down. Top detectives from around the world form the Vidocq Society and solve real cold cases. It’s Criminal Minds, CSI, Cold Case and Law and Order rolled into one!”

5. The Little Women Letters, by Gabrielle Donnelly
FOF Debbie W.: “Lulu Atwater stumbles across letters written by her great-great-grandmother Josephine March. The letters contain stories about Jo, Meg, Amy and Beth [the characters from Louisa May Alcott’s classic, Little Women]. Between passages from the letters, we get to know Lulu and her two sisters as they find their places in the world and learn about love and life. This is a good read no matter what generation you were raised in — you’ll surely identify with many of the character’s feelings as they grow up.”
6. Washington: A Life, by Ron Chernow
FOF Jane Hardin: This a must for history buffs. I learned so much about George Washington and the founding fathers (and mothers!). Ron Chernow gave the reader an incredibly intimate portrayal of Washington. This book also made me realize that political scandal and backbiting is nothing new!

7. The Free World, by David Bezmozgis
For the joy of discovering a wonderful new writer: Well, he’s not brand-new. A book of his short fiction, Natasha and Other Stories, came out in 2004. But I missed it, so he’s new to me. And what a swell find he is! In The Free World, the Krasnovskys, a family of Soviet Jewish emigrès, wait impatiently in Rome to discover if they can be placed in the U.S. or Canada or must go to Israel, which is definitely not a place they’d care to settle in. {Read More}
For one thing, there they’d be so worried about destruction they might as well have stayed home; for another, they’re tired of patriotism. As one character explains, after living his life in the Soviet Union all he wants is to get to a country with the fewest parades. The family is so well drawn that each individual begins to seem as real as a member of one’s own family, appealing yet aggravating, fabulous yet flawed. There’s the womanizing son Alec, his melancholy wife Polina, his brash brother Karl, his noisy nephews, his warm-hearted mother, and the family patriarch, Samuil, his grouchy father. Slowly revealed, their pasts form an epic tale of generational conflict marked by unshakeable devotion and unseverable attachment.

Each member of the Krasnovskys has his or her own reasons for emigrating. Alec has been stunted by the conformity of Russian life, the way no advancement or achievement was possible for him in the Soviet Union of the 1970s, Polina is seeking adventure, even though it means being torn away from her sister, the only person she has ever truly loved, Karl wants to make money, bundles of it, and the West seems to offer boundless, if not necessarily legal, opportunities, Mrs. Krasnovsky was once a physician but has subsided into mere grandmotherhood and wants religious freedom for her descendants, and Samuil, a hero of World War II who still treasures his medals and worships the Soviet Union, sees no reason to leave but is dragged unwillingly along by the others.

In Rome the family has turbulent adventures: suspenseful encounters with black marketeers, touching affairs with unsuitable partners, unfortunate pregnancies, unending disputes. But whatever the miseries he’s created for his characters, Bezmozgis’s take on the family’s plight is wry and humourous. This is book that will make you laugh as well as cry.

The critic for one esteemed publication compared Bezmozgis to Philip Roth. I can see why. Like Roth, he dabbles in tragedy behind a mask of jokiness. He’s not raunchy, like Portnoy’s Papa, yet he’s every bit as witty. But here his resemblance to Roth ends. Roth’s fictional absorption is with himself; Bezmozgis is far more interested in the lives of others.

8. State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett
For traveling, via fiction, to a far-away exotic world: The heroine of Ann Patchett’s fascinating new novel is a young research scientist, Dr. Marina Singh, who works in the mundane headquarters of a big Minnesota pharmaceutical company until she’s sent to the wilds of the Brazilian jungle to investigate the dubious work of her dismissive one-time teacher, Dr. Annick Swenson. Swenson is supposed to be developing a new fertility drug that will allow women of any age – even old age – to bear children. {Read More}
The lordly Swenson’s research facility is up some tributary of the Amazon, she takes no phone calls, opens no mail, and allows no one to know her exact whereabouts. Marina must first wait to see her for weeks until she puts in an appearance at her apartment in the torrid city of Manaus, with its “thick brown soup” of a river, its “blinding torrential downpours that seemed to rise out of clear skies and turn the streets into wild rivers that ran ankle deep,” and its market where “the smell of so many dead fish and chickens and sides of beef tilting precariously towards rot in the still air made her hold a crumpled T-shirt over the lower half of her face.”
Why does Dr. Swenson make herself so hard to reach? What is going on at her research center? Why has a colleague of Marina’s died there? And has Dr. Swenson gone mad, or has she merely lost her moral compass – if she ever had one? This book, with more than a touch of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, is a mystery as well as a stirring evocation of a primitive world and a deft exploration of the character of two brilliant women. As the novel unfolds, the self-effacing Marina will in time discover Swenson’s secrets, but in the process she must take on her teacher and gain the strength to expose the shenanigans of the drug company, whose CEO just happens to be her lover.
You’ll be with Marina, learning her thoughts as if inside her head and experiencing her alien surroundings with her distinctive eyes and ears, throughout this stunning tale.
9. Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks
For being transported into a different, long-vanished, world: Brooks, author of the incomparable March, set during the years of America’s Civil War, and Year of Wonders, set in England during the Middle Ages, this time takes us back to Martha’s Vineyard in the year 1660. There, teenager Bethia Mayfield, daughter of a Puritan missionary to the island’s “salvages,” that is, its native population, forms an unlikely friendship with Caleb, né Cheeshahteaumauck, nephew of an Indian high-priest and healer. The relationship between the pair blossoms, and eventually sees the two of them leave the island and, in one of the book’s most fascinating segments, take up residence in a swampy, smelly Cambridge, Massachusetts. {Read More}
Bethia becomes an indentured servant at a prep school, while Caleb studies to get admitted to Harvard, whose first school was built as an institution for the education and religious conversion of Indians, until more appropriate loves and painful tragedies separate them and the world they once knew splinters. Brilliantly researched, the book renders its long ago period exquisitely, and enables the author to effortlessly explore the efforts of well-intentioned early settlers and native Americans to understand and get on with one another. They were efforts that would – as history tells us – be doomed to failure for centuries to come by avarice, suspiciousness, fear and violence.
10. In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson
For you history buffs out there: Larson, who wrote the bestseller The Devil in the White City, has a way with nonfiction that makes it compulsively compelling reading. His latest book, as its subtitle says, is about an American family living in Germany during Hitler’s rise to power. What a time! And what a family! The father is William E. Dodd, America’s ambassador to Germany from 1933 to 1937, the mother his eminently proper wife Mattie, and their two children, twenty-eight-year-old Bill and twenty-four-year-old Martha. She’s the star of the family, a glamorous flirt who earned a reputation as a latter-day Scarlett O’Hara. {Read More}
She attracted, and toyed with, American literary stars like Thomas Wolfe, Carl Sandburg and Thornton Wilder, and had sexual affairs with a parade of prominent Nazis, including the chief of Germany’s foreign news service, a German flying ace, and the head of the country’s Gestapo. (There probably could just as easily have been, had Germany’s Chancellor been so inclined, Adolph Hitler himself; the at first empty-headed Martha was thrilled when he kissed her hand at a party.) Still, as she matured, Martha grew disillusioned with Naziism, as did her parents. At first they’d easily accepted conditions in Berlin, blithely ignoring the atmosphere of terror that was building all around them: the SS beatings of American tourists; the abrupt vanishing of Berliners who expressed reservations about Hitler; the persecution of the Jews. “We sort of don’t like Jews anyway,” Martha told a friend one day. And her father, surprised but pleased by the numerous luxuriously furnished mansions available in Berlin, had taken one of the grandest for an exceedingly low rent, only to be annoyed to discover the Jewish owner’s wife and children living in cramped quarters on the top floor.
But the clueless Dodds will eventually come to realize the hideousness of the Nazi regime, and in doing so, they will make the inner journey that America itself will make, a journey from looking the other way to being ready to take up arms against Hitler. Larson’s achievement is to make this story, one you may think you already know, fresh, new, and utterly transporting.
11. Go the F@#k to Sleep by Adam Mansbach, illustrated by Ricardo
For total unadulterated fun: If you haven’t already bought this book, hie thee off to the nearest bookstore or Go Immediately to the online kind – no, don’t press the Kindle or Nook button. This is a book to own in its striking hard covers. Not necessarily for you to keep, but for you to give to the parents of your oh-so-adorable grandchildren. And if you don’t have any grandchildren yet, save it till you do, because it’s already a classic, and will be one for years to come. {Read More}
It’s Mansbach’s take on Goodnight, Moon, and the other sleepy-time books that toddlers love, and that they ask their parents to read over to them. And over. And over. And then fetch them a glass of water. And another. It’s bedtime poetry for the exhausted parent, plus downright gorgeous illustrations of cherubic kids and dozing lions and tigers and kitty cats and froggies. It’s a pretty book that’s pretty damned insightful and speaks truth to convention.

Your Reading List for Enlightenment

FOF Sophy Burnham is one of the foremost spiritual seekers and writers of our generation. Her books about everyday experiences with angels, including A Book of Angels and Angel Letters, have sold millions of copies and changed the way the world looks at the afterlife. Her most recent book, The Art of Intuition, explains how each of us can tap into our own connection to the spiritual world.

We asked Sophy to put together a short list of titles that will help you get started on your own spiritual search…Here, her essential “reading list for the soul”. . .

The Varieties of Religious Experience, by William James (Penguin Classics)
This is a classic: A brilliant mind exploring what it means to be hit by the Holy Spirit–what happens, what happens afterwards. It was taken from a series of lectures at the University of Edinburgh and was immediately acknowledged as the best joining of psychological, philosophical, and spiritual thought. I can’t be more enthusiastic about it. Anyone interested in “the self” should read it.

Autobiography of a Yogi, by Yogananada (Self-Realization Fellowship) is from the Eastern point of view. Chatty, readable, wise. It will lift your heart.

The Way of a Pilgrim (Image Books). An unknown 19th-century Russian peasant wrestles with Christ’s teaching to  “pray without ceasing.” There are so many brilliant works on Christianity that it is hard to pick one, so I choose this most unusual little classic about a man who tried to live like the Master at every moment.

The Cat Who Went to Heaven (Aladdin Books), winner of the Newbery Medal for Children’s books, by Elizabeth Coatsworth. This is the story of a Japanese painter who is trying to paint the story of the Buddha.  I read this every year and sometimes more because in its little 60-page tale is all the wisdom and kindness and goodness of all the books ever written. Perhaps my favorite, I keep this one by my bedside.

Meet our Fab Book Critic

FOF Linda Wolfe is a journalist, essayist and fiction writer who happened to move to a new apartment right next door to the Faboverfifty offices. Our brilliant neighbor has written hundreds of articles for publications including New York magazine, the New York Times  and Vanity Fair. She’s also written ten books, many of them about famous crimes, both contemporary and historic. WASTED, her brilliantly researched look at the infamous “Preppie Murder,” received an Edgar Award nomination and was a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year.”

For 12 years, Linda has been a judge for the National Book Critics Circle, an organization that bestows highly coveted awards to the year’s “Best” works of fiction, nonfiction, autobiography, biography, poetry and criticism. Naturally, we asked her to review books for Faboverfifty.  Luckily, she agreed.

You can read her fabulous recommendations, here.