To say I’ve been an avid (rather, a rabid) reader my whole life dates as far back as I can remember—to my jumping-out-of-my-skin excitement when the Bookmobile would come into my neighborhood. Pippi Longstocking and her wild adventures on the high seas were a huge fascination for me.

Fast-forward to adulthood: I’ve been listening to audiobooks for more than 30 years. I initially started out listening to books on tape, strapping my clunky Sony® Walkman® contraption to my belt as I took long walks for exercise. Listening to books helped take my mind off the heat and humidity while I was exercising, and also was a great escape after the workday. A few years later I upgraded to a Sony Discman and marveled at the improvement in sound quality. But when Apple Computer® released their first-generation iPod® in 2001, that was it for me—I was an early and permanent convert to books in downloadable format. (Most people used their iPods for music, and I did that too, but the possibilities for books suddenly opened up to me.) Audible.com came into being in 1997 and I became a subscriber shortly after purchasing that first iPod. My account says I now have 331 books archived in my library, but that can’t be right—that number sounds way too low, for 20 years of subscribing! I think a few early versions of my account (when I stopped and started a few times) must have gotten lost in the ether somewhere.

Anyway, I love to talk about books and share the best ones I’ve read with other rabid readers. I’ll post my favorites here on a regular basis. Anyone who has a comment or who has a book to recommend is welcome to join the conversation! [Full disclosure: links to Audible.com/Amazon.com books are affiliate links, meaning I’ll earn a small commission on qualifying purchases.]

Neptune: The Allied Invasion of Europe and the D-Day Landings by Craig L. Symonds

My friend Richard Hoch has this to say about Neptune: “Lovers of WWII nonfiction will want to read Craig L. Symonds’ Neptune: The Allied Invasion of Europe and the D-Day Landings. In clear language, Symonds describes the planning and implementation of the Allies’ great assault on Normandy, also offering insights into the personalities of the American and British leaders, as well as discussing the impact of hundreds of thousands of Americans on British life. Highly recommended.”

The Secret History by Donna Tartt [i.e., the same author as The Goldfinch]

My friend Richard Hoch also recommended this book: “Tartt’s debut novel, The Secret History, is a real gem. The novel opens with a murder and then proceeds to unravel a fascinating, disturbing backstory. Tartt combines an eagle eye for suburban life in the late 70s/early 80s with a vivid imagination and just enough information about the ancient Greeks to make this one of this reviewer’s favorite novels of the last 20 years.”

The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition by Caroline Alexander

This book was published in 1998 and I read it shortly thereafter, handed to me by a friend in a book club. It is by far one of the most memorable books I have ever read. It is a true account of the 1914 expedition of Irish explorer Ernest Shackleton and his crew of 27 men, as they set sail to cross the South Atlantic in hopes of being the first to reach the South Pole. This book has it all: Their ship “Endurance” gets trapped in the freezing Weddell Sea and eventually gets crushed into a thousand matchsticks, stranding the crew on the ice floes. The writer takes you through the next agonizing 20 months as they try to escape in open lifeboats, try to survive on the ice, and ultimately wait to be rescued by Shackleton himself, who leaves in an open boat to find help.

One of the most astounding things about this story is that one of the crew members was a photographer from Australia named Frank Hurley. His photodocumentation of their horrific ordeal somehow miraculously survived, and is reproduced in this book for the first time through cooperation with the American Museum of Natural History. As you know if you have read any of my blog, I am a firm believer in the power of images to tell a story. The photos published along with this narrative tell a powerful story of first their adventure, then their trauma, and finally their triumphant rescue. This is why you must read the hard copy version of this book! No audio books here. You must see these photos to get a full appreciation of what these men went through.

Also—I have since read other accounts of Shackleton’s journey. None compare with this version. This is the book you want to read for lasting impact.

The Goldfinch: A Novel by Donna Tartt

This book has been out for 5 to 6 years but I was late in reading it. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and is one of the most astounding books I’ve read in a very long time. Theo is a 13-year-old New Yorker visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art with his mother. They temporarily split up at the end of their visit—she runs into the gift shop and he flirts with a girl he spots that interests him. In this brief interlude, a terrorist bomb goes off in the museum that kills his mother; he  miraculously survives the attack. A dying older man gestures to the centuries-old Dutch master’s painting of “The Goldfinch” and tells Theo to take it with him as he’s escaping the chaos of the museum, so it doesn’t get damaged from smoke or the overhead sprinklers. On impulse, Theo does just that.

This one simple act comes to define the rest of Theo’s life in ways he never imagines, nor can the reader. Even though the book is almost 800 pages long, the journey Theo takes, along with the astonishing twist at the end, made it worth every late night I spent reading. Please don’t pass this one up.

Yellow Bird: Oil, Murder, and a Woman’s Search for Justice in Indian Country by Sierra Crane Murdoch

This book caught my interest for about five different reasons: 1) it’s a true crime story about a murder… 2) in the oil industry… 3) in North Dakota where I grew up… 4) involves a native Indian reservation and how they were exploited by the oil industry… and 5) explores the broader topics of addiction and recovery in native Americans, and their history of exploitation by our government. I was in!

I listened with a keen, attentive ear, not only for slip-ups regarding how the oil industry was portrayed (outsiders never seem to get it right), but also North Dakota itself. I was pleasantly surprised at the accuracy, right down to the last technical details and the pronunciation of the names of local towns and cities. I emailed the author as much, congratulating her on a fine body of work. It was awarded Amazon’s Best Book of March 2020.

Yearbook by Seth Rogen

Everything about Seth Rogen cracks me up, and this book was no exception. His comical outlook on life and the way he can spot the absurdity in everyday situations is just the ticket if your brain is needing a sanity break.

All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days: The True Story of the American Woman at the Heart of the German Resistance to Hitler, by Rebecca Donner

You will find WWII to be a common topic in my book recommendations, so if this subject matter doesn’t interest you, you can skip this one. A fascinating true story that was long buried about an American woman who got deeply involved in the resistance to Hitler.

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

This book was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize for 2021, and I had passed it by before, but when I saw that, I thought I should give it a try. Normally books about artificial intelligence and robots don’t interest me (I’m not a sci-fi fan) and I’m still not sure after finishing this book whether I liked it or not. The concepts are interesting and a little frightening to think about. If anyone has read it and has any comment about it, I’d be interested to hear what you think.

The Confidence Men by Margalit Fox

Another fascinating war story, this time about two prisoners of war during WWI who engineered their escape by an ingenious psychological scheme played out on their captors. I learned that the term “con men” actually comes from the phrase “confidence men,” something that is explained more fully in the book. Loved this one!

The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom

The 2019 National Book Award Winner for Nonfiction. A memoir about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath in New Orleans, Louisiana, and how, in particular, it affected the poor. The “yellow house” is the house the author grew up in, the damage it sustained, and how it anchors not only the family but the story itself. This memoir held particular interest for me, because I’ve watched so much of the same bungling of billions of dollars of government hurricane relief dollars go mismanaged and unspent in areas that were hardest hit, namely in Rockport and Houston, Texas, after Hurricane Harvey.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

The Mirror & the Light by Hilary Mantel

These three books I list together, as they are a trilogy by Hilary Mantel about the life of Thomas Cromwell, from the time he rose to power in Tudor England, in Henry VIII’s court, until his execution on the order of the self-same Henry VIII. Also featuring Queen Catherine of Aragon (wife no. 1), Anne Boleyn (wife no. 2), Jane Seymour (wife no. 3), Thomas More, and other fascinating characters of the British court in the 1500s. I guess she will have to write three more books to incorporate the last three wives!

Adobe Stock image. Get 10 free Adobe Stock images.

She is probably my favorite author. She became the only female author to win the Man Booker Prize twice, and that prize was won for the first two of the three books. These I read in hard cover, and all three I read twice. One of the things I so admire about Hilary Mantel, is I learned that she suffers from a debilitating illness (a severe form of endometriosis) and is in almost constant pain. Therefore she almost never leaves her home. Yet she can transcend that to do astounding research and write complex, unforgettable sentences. One of my favorite exchanges: Thomas and his son were looking at a newly finished portrait of Thomas painted by the famous portraitist of the day Hans Holbein. Thomas said, “He made me look like a murderer.” His son looked at him and said, “Did you not know?”

The Eagle’s Nest: The Immigrant Series, Book 1, by Mary Barton

A true story about immigrants from Poland who escaped poverty and conscription into war to find a better life in America in the late 1800s. They settled in North Dakota and Minnesota and their descendants still inhabit the area today.

OK. Shameless plug…this was written by my sister. And edited by yours truly. 🙂 But it’s still an awesome, true account of my family’s history going back several generations, written in novel format. And also, probably a similar history of many generations of people who went through similar struggles to start a new life in a strange new country, back during a time when America was practically giving away land, just to lure people to come here, break ground, settle the land, and build communities. That’s the story that this book tells.

[All “white people” images on this post are from Adobe® Stock, of which this site is an affiliate.]

7 Responses

  1. Lovers of WW II non-fiction will want to read Craig L. Symonds’ Neptune: The Allied Invasion of Europe and the D-Day Landings. In clear language, Symonds describes the planning and implementation of the Allies’ great assault on Normandy, also offering insights into the personalities of the American and British leaders as well as discussing the impact of hundreds of thousands of Americans on British life. Highly recommended.

  2. Tartt’s debut novel, The Secret History, is a real gem. The novel opens with a murder and then proceeds to unravel a fascinating, disturbing backstory. Tartt combines an eagle eye for suburban life in the late 70s/early 80s with a vivid imagination and just enough information about the ancient Greeks to make this one of this reviewer’s favorite novels of the last 20 years.

  3. Gail,
    I submitted “To Kill a Mockingbird” to the New York Times for best book. It is a ridiculous request to ask for the best book in the last 125 years. But that is the one I choose anyway.

    1. Hi Mary –

      That’s a good one! My gut instinct was to nominate “The Origin of Species” by Charles Darwin, but then I realized that one didn’t make the cut because it’s about 150 years old. It will be fascinating to see what wins, or to even see what makes the final 10…Books of science? Philosophy? Great fiction? My curiosity is already killing me…

      Thanks for participating!

      Gail

    1. Hi Jackie,
      I do too! So I’ll be happy to hear what you are reading! Right now I’m in the middle of “Great Circle” by Maggie Shipstead. It’s another one that was long-listed for the 2021 Man Booker prize. It’s about a female aviator who was contemporary of Amelia Earhart’s but no one really knew about her, she didn’t have the notoriety that Amelia did. The writer goes back and forth between the 1920s and modern day, to the actress that is playing this aviator in a movie. So it’s a bit jarring. I have a long way to go before I finish…I’ll let you know if I end up liking it or not!

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