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I've been reviewing books for Virginia Living since 2003, and before that I wrote freelance reviews
for various magazines and newspapers. I've been asked countless times
what books I'm reading and which of those I would recommend, so it seemed a good idea to put
together a list of "best reads" that I could share with anyone interested.
Remember though, tastes vary; a book I think is a great read might not be your particular flavor.
If you prefer one genre over another, you can always check out the award-winning lists for those particular
types of books, such as the Edgar Award for mysteries,
the Bram Stoker Award for horror, and
the Hugo Award for science fiction.
Browse through my lists, and, if you have a suggestion for a great read, please send it along. Click HERE to send me an e-mail message.
Best read from 2011
The Revisionists, by Thomas Mullen.
Though shelved with other mysteries, The Revisionists is a literary crossover of the Cold Mountain variety, with writing so beautiful and characters so lovingly detailed that you would follow them wherever the story leads them.
Here's an excerpt from when two of the main characters meet: "Standing farther down the aisle, frantically comparing the contents of her cart to a crinkled paper in her hands, was a gorgeous young Southeast Asian woman. … An indigo crescent moon curved beneath her left eye. He thought it might be a birthmark, because the only alternative was too unfortunate to consider: that it was the fading trace of a shiner. They made eye contact and he looked away, caught leering—was she as beautiful as he thought, or was he just thrown by all the conflicting signals? Her near-black hair was pulled in a loose ponytail, the strands seeming to sigh as they drooped around the elastic. There was a wide space between her eyebrows, a place he imagined a lover kissing."
See what I mean?
In mystery novels, I’m used to figuring out whodunit by the third chapter. But in The Revisionists, I not only had no idea who had done it, I had no real idea what "it" was that had actually been done! Or, in this case, was about to be done. Let me be clear, though: the confusion is due to delicious misdirection, not muddled writing. This is one of the most cleverly written and plotted books I’ve read in a long time.
The basic plot is this: historical agitators, or hags, from the distant future are traveling back in time to prevent disasters, such as the Holocaust, the 9/11 attacks, and, in the all-too-near-future, the Great Conflagration. Also time traveling are futuristic government agents who use extreme force to prevent the hags from meddling, which might upset their “perfect present.”
The story unfolds through the eyes of four main characters: Zed, an agent from the future, and three present-day individuals who are struggling in unhappy lives because of decisions they’ve made in the past. As each of their stories intertwines with the others, Zed is there to dispassionately observe and protect. But he, too, is haunted by his past and can’t help wondering what would happen if he intercedes on behalf of these otherwise doomed souls. As Zed battles hags over historical integrity in our own unperfect present, he begins to question the morality of his actions—and inactions—as well as why his government actually sent him back.
Best read from 2010
Richmond Noir, edited by Andrew Blossom, Brian Castleberry, and Tom DeHaven.
A sick, disoriented, homeless woman is kicked out of a hospital and dumped on the side of the road like trash. A stripper considers prostituting herself so her friend can film it and blackmail the John. A battered body washes up on the shores of the James River and the police go through the motions but show no real interest. This is how three of the fifteen stories in Richmond Noir begin—like a hard blow to the reader’s solar plexus.
Violence and injustice reverberate throughout Richmond Noir, but the disenfranchised main characters, from drug addicts and prostitutes to lonely retirees and unemployed bankers, somehow maintain an air of dignity. In the introduction, the three co-editors mention how 19th Century Richmond was “a-crawl with slingshot- and shotgun-toting gangs” and how in the 1990s it earned the label of Murder Capital of the United States; they go on to state, “Richmond is a city of winter balls and garden parties on soft summer evenings. ...It’s also a city of brutal crime scenes and drug corners and okay-everybody-go-on-home-there’s-nothing-more-to-see. ...When you accept a city not only for its strengths but also for its weaknesses, when you realize that the combination of the two is what gives the place true beauty...well, that is love.”
“Love,” in this case, is of the bittersweet variety. Tender moments, when they appear, are not to be trusted. When a man wanders back to the dusty baseball diamond where he used to play Little League games, you can’t help but wonder how long it will take for his wistful reminiscence to turn tragic. Not long at all. The man is now a drug addict, and after everyone else leaves the baseball diamond he crosses the street to his former third grade teacher’s house with the intention of robbing it. He discovers the teacher has had her share of hard knocks. She is blind and poor, but that doesn’t stop him from blaming her for his troubles and slapping her around.
Each story follows the general parameters of the noir genre (crime stories that typically feature tough, cynical characters in bleak settings), but the individual authors were encouraged to experiment. While many of the stories are set in typical noir settings (project apartments, trailer parks and run-down houses with sagging porches and machine parts in the yards), others are staged unusually in such places as marble-floored museums and hydroelectric plants.
There is a diversity of style among the 15 stories contributed by 15 different Richmond area authors, each of whom took the basic premise of "noir" and applied it to different situations in the city of Richmond. In addition to a wide array of style and voice provided by the authors, each story is set in a different neighborhood. Along with the table of contents appears a map of Richmond with an outline of a dead body superimposed over each neighborhood featured in the book.
The end result is taut and tense writing throughout, peppered at times with details of the city’s architecture and appearance. All but one story occur in present day Richmond, but most still manage to weave historical tidbits into their plots. From the opening line of Tom Robbins’ foreword—“When I think of Richmond, Virginia…my thoughts turn frequently to alleys”—the city’s presence bears the distinction of a main character. In the opening story, “The Rose Red Vial” by Pir Rothenberg, a museum employee is seduced by a young volunteer who wants him to steal a vial of perfume once used by Edgar Allan Poe’s wife, Virginia. The story takes place inside both the museum and the employee’s home, but an image of the city comes through as the main character reflects on Poe’s life in Richmond. In “The Battle of Belle Isle” by Clay McLeod Chapman, two homeless people seek shelter near a mass gravesite of mistreated and malnourished Civil War POWs, foreshadowing their own bleak futures. Chapman writes, "Over a hundred prisoners of war dumped into the dirt. Nothing but burlap wrapped around their bones—the lice wriggling free, trying to hop out before the earth got shoveled over."
This book serves as the editors’ and authors’ love letter to the city. Richmond, they assert, “is a hell of a place to live.” Judging by the book’s body count, it’s also a hell of a place to die.
Best read from 2009
Legacy: Walter Chrysler Jr. and the Untold Story of Norfolk's Chrysler Museum of Art, by Peggy Earle.
Walter Chrysler’s life is an American success story and his company's role in the auto industry was, and still is, huge. But in Hampton Roads, it is the life work of his first son, Walter Chrysler, Jr., that has made a bigger impact.
While the father’s passion lay with engineering, the son’s predilection was for art. Born into luxury, he traveled extensively and obsessively bought whatever caught his eye, sometimes purchasing valuable paintings but just as frequently buying junk of yard-sale quality. Even so, he amassed what would become one of the world’s finest private art collections, filled with works by Picasso, Matisse, Fragonard, and other masters.
Although Norfolk already had a small art museum, the city was willing to expand it and name it after Chrysler if he would bring his $65 million in art (now valued around $1 billion) to Hampton Roads. Many locals are unaware that such a rich collection resides in Hampton Roads and even fewer know of the museum’s convoluted history, so Peggy Earle decided to tell the story.
In Legacy, Earle both enlightens and entertains while describing the lucrative but volatile union of Chrysler and Norfolk. The behind-the-scenes stories of what it was like to work with Chrysler make this book hard to put down. “The most fun I had with the interviews was hearing these funny stories about [Chrysler],” Earle says, “because he was such a character. He was a true eccentric. He would constantly contradict himself and he would do such hilarious things...[such as] going through the [gift shop] postcards and making sure they were in alphabetical order.”
Chrysler was compulsive, vain, and given to volatile mood swings, and there were those in the city who opposed allowing him in. But, the size of his gift trumped their reservations, and the cultural face of Norfolk has never been the same.
Best read from 2008
The Wettest County in the World, by Matt Bondurant.
The Wettest County in the World is a gritty novel about a family of bootleggers in Franklin County, Virginia during prohibition.
The central character is Jack Bondurant, the author’s grandfather. The book’s cover photo is an actual picture of Jack as a young man sitting on the hood of his car, cigar clamped in his teeth. Jack is introduced in 1919 as an eight-year-old boy trying to slaughter the family pig. He shoots it three times with a .22 rifle, but the pig won’t go down. So Jack’s older brother Forrest hops into the pen and slits its throat with a boning knife. In the next handful of pages, Jack’s mother and two sisters succumb to the Spanish Lady Flu.
The scenes are told in a matter-of-fact manner, letting the reader know these are hard times and death comes easy, details relayed with the same grisly authenticity, melancholic tone, and spare eloquence of Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain: “Jack remembers taking a biscuit from the plate, his shaking hand. His mother and sisters laid out on the floor, covered with a quilt. Nobody said anything.”
The story quickly takes off with Jack and his two brothers, Forrest and Howard, setting up business to make their own corn whiskey. Bootlegging—or “blockading” as they refer to it—was for years a fairly risk-free endeavor in Franklin County, Virginia. Thirsty patrons could visit a bar or even a gas station to purchase a mason jar of White Lightning, or they could just place an order and have it delivered to their doorsteps like a morning newspaper. But all that changes in 1929 when the commonwealth’s attorney, Carter Lee, starts demanding protection money from all the blockaders in the county. Those who refuse will finally have to face repercussions, which in many cases are delivered via shotgun.
Crooked cops aren’t the only problems lurking. With the Depression in full swing, ne’er-do-wells see robbing successful liquor way stations as a way to make a quick buck, turning a once harmless endeavor into a risky proposition. Throughout the book, various people good and bad are beaten, knifed, and shot, but no matter what happens, nothing stops the liquor from flowing.
Best read from 2007
House to House: An Epic Memoir of War, by SSG David Bellavia.
From publisher's synopsis:
On the night of November 10, 2004, a U.S. Army infantry squad under Staff Sergeant David Bellavia entered the heart of the city of Fallujah and plunged into one of the most sustained and savage urban battles in the history of American men at arms.
With Third Platoon, Alpha Company, part of the Army's Task Force 2/2, Bellavia and his men confronted an enemy who had had weeks to prepare, booby-trapping houses, arranging ambushes, rigging entire city blocks as explosives-laden kill zones, and even stocking up on atropine, a steroid that pumps up fighters in the equivalent of a long-lasting crack high. Entering one house, alone, Bellavia faced the fight of his life against six insurgents, using every weapon at his disposal, including a knife. It is the stuff of legend and the chief reason he is one of the great heroes of the Iraq War.
Bringing to searing life the terrifying intimacy of hand-to-hand infantry combat, House to House is far more than just another war story. Populated by an indelibly drawn cast of characters, from a fearless corporal who happens to be a Bush-hating liberal to an inspirational sergeant-major who became the author's own lost father figure, it develops the intensely close relationships that form between soldiers under fire. Their friendships, tested in brutal combat, would never be quite the same. Not all of them would make it out of the city alive. What happened to them in their bloody embrace with America's most implacable enemy is a harrowing, unforgettable story of triumph, tragedy, and the resiliency of the human spirit.
A timeless portrait of the U.S. infantryman's courage, House to House is a soldier's memoir that is destined to rank with the finest personal accounts of men at war.
Best read from 2006
Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen.
When Jacob Jankowski jumps onto a passing train, he enters a world of freaks and misfits, a second-rate circus struggling to survive during the Great Depression. A veterinary student who almost earned his degree, Jacob is put in charge of caring for the circus menagerie. It is there that he meets Rosie, an elephant who seems untrainable until he discovers a way to reach her. He also finds, and falls in love with, Marlena, the beautiful star of the equestrian act. She has a loveless marriage to August, the sadistic animal trainer who controls the fate of the star-crossed lovers, forcing them to bury their passion and focus on the animals.
Beautifully written, Water for Elephants is illuminated by a wonderful sense of time and place, telling a love story between two people in a world where love is a luxury that few can afford.
Best read from 2005
Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream, by Barbara Ehrenreich.
The feedback that Barbara Ehrenreich received from her thirteenth book, Nickel & Dimed: On Not Getting By in America, was extraordinary, both in volume and content. But in 2002, many of the letters started to tell of a different plight. They were still filled with stories of hardship facing unemployed parents and minimum wage workers, but a surprising amount of them held college degrees and were once members of the middle class.
“One such letter,” says Ehrenreich, “was from a 43-year-old chemical engineer who had been laid off a couple of years ago and was writing to me about her experiences in homeless shelters. And I thought, ‘What is going on here?’ This is a whole side of it I hadn’t thought about. People sort of take it for granted that there is going to be all this churning in and out of jobs. But it can be catastrophic. In our strange system, you lose your health insurance when you lose your job, and we have unemployment benefits for only six months. So, it can be a pretty fast slide down to the point where you may have to swallow your pride and say, ‘Well, I think I’m going to have to go down to Best Buy or Wal-Mart and take what I can get.’”
Stunned into action, Ehrenreich decided to once again find out what was happening by going undercover, this time as a public relations specialist. She created a plausible résumé using her maiden name and entered the stream of unemployed white-collar workers seeking employment. She sought professional help but instead received perplexing advice from career coaches who offered nothing more than peppy catchphrases or dense and perplexing nonsense. “For example,” says Ehrenreich, “I was just baffled by the emphasis on personality. I was presenting myself as a PR person, so why did all these career coaches want to give me a personality test to see if I should do that? That’s what I said I already did!”
But even though the help she received was feeble at best, Ehrenreich pressed on. She went to job fairs, “boot camps,” and even to evangelical job-finding ministries. “Something that very much kept me working on Bait and Switch,” Ehrenreich says, “was that the idea of earning a college degree and playing by all the rules so that you will be safe, you will be secure, it just no longer has any basis. In the 90’s, corporations began to look at white-collar workers as being disposable, which is a big shift—from seeing them as something that needs to be nurtured to expenses that can be eliminated. CEOs were rewarded for eliminating more and more people, and that became the Wall Street fad: reduce your numbers and your stock will go up.
“That’s one thing I discovered that is really perverse: that sometimes people are eliminated simply because they are doing well. I’ve talked to a lot of job seekers who were still stunned. They would say, ‘You know, I got a promotion not too long ago. And I got some award at the company dinner. And then I came in one day and was told I had half-an-hour to pack my stuff.’ And the reason for that is that if you earn slightly more money you are a more tempting cost cut. So that’s really perverse, because that means you begin to weed out the high achievers.”
Best read from 2004
Confinement, by Carrie Brown.
Carrie Brown created Confinement out of a single image—a man in the backseat of a car being driven at night down a long snow-covered lane. “That was all I had at first,” says Brown. “I don’t know where the image came from, but it wouldn’t go away. Then I had to find out who this man was, and where he was going, and where he’d come from.”
Oddly enough, the more Brown thought about this man in the backseat, the less significant he became. The story focused instead on another man, the one driving the car. Arthur Henning is a Jew who left Austria for England at the outset of World War II. After losing his home to the Nazis, he then loses his wife and daughter in one of the raids during the Battle of Britain. When the war ends, he immigrates to America with his surviving son where he becomes the chauffeur of a rich businessman.
Even after Henning starts a new life in America, he continues to suffer throughout the story, enduring all his hardships with stoic grace. He is a man of dignity and honor who expects little out of life, and gets exactly what he expects. Having experienced so much loss already, he now lives confined by the fear of losing anything else. Too scared to do anything but follow orders, he stands by passively while those he loves are harmed along with him.
“Over the years, doing what the Duvalls told him to do had become inseparable from his own character, his own will. Too late, he understood that the obscure pain he had felt for so long was connected to this abdication...Arthur believed himself broken, a man who had lost everything.”
When Henning happens upon the grandson he allowed to be given up for adoption, he starts to question everything he’s done, or more to the point, not done. He ponders his life in a series of flashbacks while working up the courage to make amends to those who have paid for his inaction. The reader is kept in suspense, not knowing whether or not Henning will dare to take a risk until the final few paragraphs.
In this wonderfully crafted book, Brown achieves the most difficult task of getting the reader to care for an indecisive hero. Making this doubly hard was the fact that she shared no biographical similarities to this character. As Brown says, “I am neither male, nor Jewish, nor was I alive during WWII.”
To understand Arthur Henning, Brown delved into the Austrian Holocaust and studied accounts of refugees in Great Britain and in the U.S. during and after WWII. She spent a week in Vienna, where she wandered the city streets and met with a curator at the city museum. The curator steered her toward a collection of historical photographs that provided Brown an authentic look into that lost era. “Such felicitous moments cannot be counted on during research,” Brown says, “but it’s lovely when they occur.”
Best read from 2003
The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini.
Billed as the first novel written in English by an Afghan writer, this stunning debut is a poignant tale of friendship, betrayal, and the search for redemption. The language is poetic; the plot, fascinating; and the story, heart-rending.
The Kite Runner carries the reader through everyday life in Kabul, Afghanistan, from the lush days before the Soviet invasion through the rise to power of the Taliban. We first view the city from the protagonist’s privileged point of view. As the son of a wealthy merchant, Amir shows us Kabul in all its glory. Despite class differences, Amir plays daily with his servant, Hassan. They compete together in the annual kite-fighting tournament, where Amir controls a kite with a glass-studded string and Hassan runs down other kites when Amir cuts their lines. The two boys are best friends, but even so, Amir sacrifices Hassan in an attempt to gain his father’s respect.
Amir lives with the guilt of his betrayal and cowardice for decades, and when he’s called back to Kabul in 2001, he goes there seeking redemption. The city of his youth is barely recognizable. A dusty haze fills the air, buildings lie in ruin, and citizens train their eyes on the ground, avoiding the hanging bodies dangling overhead. Amir’s shock is complete when he witnesses a man attempting to sell his artificial leg for money to feed his family.
As terrible as it is, this is the Afghanistan the outside world has been shown in recent years. The power of Hosseini’s story comes not from providing new and startling details of the current situation, but in giving us something to compare it to. With its marble floors, gold-stitched tapestries, and poplar trees lining the red brick driveway, the house Amir grew up in could have been plucked from an affluent neighborhood anywhere else in the world—a stunning revelation to all those whose only views of the country had come from CNN war footage.
Hosseini was born in Kabul, escaping to the United States in 1980 when his family received political asylum, so the descriptions he provides ring true. Additionally, he shares insight into the lives of Afghan expatriates after relocating to America. Clustered together in tight-knit communities, they maintain traditional customs. When Amir flirts with a young Afghan woman, her father shoos him away until he calls on her properly—by having his own father arrange a lafz, the ceremony of “giving word.”
By bringing the reader into the Afghan community, Hosseini humanizes their plight and makes the current devastation more astonishing. Kabul’s metamorphosis into a pockmarked slum carries more weight after knowing the once-lavish Afghanistan of yesteryear. Filled with this sense, it’s hard not to compare it to your own neighborhood and wonder how each of us would react to that transformation. Considering it happened to Afghanistan over a scant 30 years, that question should haunt readers long after they’ve finished the story.
Best read from 2002
The Monk Downstairs, by Tim Farrington.
A lost monk finds his way again through his upstairs neighbor. A cynical, single mother learns to hope again through her downstairs tenant. At its core, The Monk Downstairs is a love story, but it is so much more. Farrington’s storytelling is philosophical, spiritual, and whimsical, and somehow he pulls off this complex mix without seeming condescending. As the single mother and the monk downstairs move past earlier, regrettable decisions into an unknown future, readers can’t help being filled with wonder as they turn one captivating page after another.
As with Farrington’s two previous novels (The California Book of the Dead and Blues for Hannah), he holds the reader’s interest through beautifully crafted prose and well-constructed characters. Michael Christopher, the downstairs monk, starts out as a stranger, “a lanky man with rounded shoulders and a long, sad face muffled by a beard in need of trimming...his hair was cropped close, the merest new dark stubble on a skull that had obviously been kept shorn until recently.” But as he adjusts to life outside the monastery, he evolves into the next-door neighbor we can all recognize and love.
The story’s point of view is that of Rebecca, a single mother struggling to find comfort in her not-so-comfortable rut. Her daily routine is made up of simple experiences, each unremarkable but personable. Though we see the world through Rebecca’s eyes, we also gain insight into Michael Christopher’s mind through letters he writes to a monk in the order he renounced. We see events through Rebecca then share in Michael’s perception by his tone in the correspondence.
Farrington crafts his scenes with vivid imagery, but not in a manner that bogs the reader down in minutia. By focusing on a few telling details, he gives us peripheral information about the characters. After Rebecca returned home from a failed date, she “passed through the kitchen to the back porch. The abalone shell on the top shelf was filled with butts; she kept meaning to empty it. She sat down, tugged her coat around her, and lit the day’s last Marlboro. Above her, the stars themselves seemed weary in a sky bleached thin by the city’s lights.” The fact that Rebecca hides her smoking from her daughter is touching. When she needs a relaxing drag, she sneaks out to her back porch, and it is imperfections such as this that make her quest for a better life so endearing.
As I discovered the characters’ quirks, I grew closer to them, and as I got deeper into the story, I forgot I was reading a book. Instead, I was walking through the downstairs apartment with Rebecca and Michael Christopher, seeking comfort in their company, and searching for a perfect peace.
Best read from 2001
Kissing in Manhattan, by David Schickler.
The main characters in this collection of linked stories all live in the same building in Manhattan. But what really connects all of the stories is the power of Schickler's writing. There is force and urgency in each of his stories and not a wimp in the cast. It's hard to put the book down once you begin. A stunning debut.
Best read from 2000
The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen.
Franzen is at the height of his game writing about an extended, dysfunctional, Midwestern family. The dad has just retired and is suffering the early stages of Alzheimers; the mom is determined to be a perfect little Martha Stewart clone, though few things seem to go her way; one son is trying to bilk people out of their money through a scheme involving fraudulent investment in a former Soviet country; another son is battling depression; and the daughter is a chef whose laurels become tarnished after an affair with the owner.
This book is a hefty tome and a difficult read, made so by Franzen's complex and often overwrought writing style. At times it seems he is more interested in his clever wordplay than in telling the story (there is at least one instance where a single sentence takes up an entire page; an amazing feat, but also an unneccesary one). Even so, The Corrections truly is a Great American Novel and well worth the effort to slog through it.
Best read from 1999
Interpreter of Maladies, by Jhumpa Lahiri.
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, this debut collection of stories is about Indian immigrants in America either trying to maintain their culture or trying to run away from it. Lahiri's prose is meticulously crafted so that every sentence sings. Truly a beautiful read.
SHORT STORY COLLECTIONS
My top ten favorite novels
My top ten favorite poetry books