December is book month whether buying gifts for others or just looking for something to curl up with over the holidays. So in the spirit of the season, here are a few titles that we want to share, ones we put in the category of “best books.” Some are new, some are not. There is fiction and fact and the only common ground is that we loved them all.
I love small stories writ large, tiny worlds carefully constructed by truly gifted writers in which, as the reader, I can transplant myself. Helen Simonson’s first outing gives us such a world and that rarity of rarities, a true midlife love story. Major Pettigrew is stuffy old Britain, a man who finds it easier to show his love for his treasured Churchill rifles than his son. Mrs Ali is the new Britain, worldly, industrious and passionate in her love of family. These two characters, the embodiment of two eras, bring out the very best in each other. Simonson’s sense of humor emerges in a very funny undercurrent as we see her American characters through very British eyes. As an American who long lived in England, I did not know whether to blush or apologize. This is a book without artifice. If you are tired of reading books of contrived youthful passion and instead want a tale of real adult love, Major Pettigrew and Mrs. Ali will not let you down.
This is a beach book, in the very best page-turning sense of the word, for reading even when there is no beach. Ever wondered what would happen if you could rewind the tape on your life and figure out where things went wrong? Ever wonder about friendships lost or marriages heading down the wrong path? Liane Moriarty’s Alice has settled into middle age. She is tough on her kids and at the end of her rope with her husband. And then, in that otherwise contrived twist that in fiction we readily accept, she hits her head and the rewind button. Alice is 39 but thinks she is 29 and is forced to look at the decisions she has made over that eventful decade. For anyone who has ever wanted a do over, or just greater clarity for how life turned out like it did, this is your fantasy.
We featured Sally Koslow here because we love her and love her writing. Mary Dell had the privilege of taking some of Sally’s superb writing courses (she works one on one in person and remotely if anyone wants to walk in Mary Dell’s shoes) and then later acting as an author’s assistant on this wonderful volume. If you find that you have raised “adultescents,” young people seemingly caught in that limbo between adulthood and adolescence or fear that is who you are in the process of raising, Sally’s tale is for you. She brings the hard nosed research of a journalist and the warm heart of a mother to her analysis of why our kids can’t/won’t grow up and what we should do about it. Sally is not afraid to pull punches with a generation of parents who have overindulged their offspring leaving them unable to move forward. She gives us a verbal slap on the wrist with my favorite line directed at her fellow baby boomer parents, “Step away from the kid.”
Roger Rosenblatt, writing professor, journalist, playwright and author of 14 titles, knows his way around a sentence and a story. But this is his story, the story of the aftermath of the tragic loss of his daughter, a young mother and a pediatrician. While the sadness of that event never lifts, the story of how he and his wife step into their daughter’s household and help their grieving son- in-law and grandchildren is a tale of family love that will never leave you. In this short memoir Rosenblatt studies his own grief, belief in God, and bubbling anger. He returns to being a full time parent when he thought his parenting days were over. If you love a wonderful memoir, there can be no better tale than this, but if you love exceptional writing, this is the art at its very best. In his follow up book, Kayak Morning: Reflections on Love, Grief and Small Boats, Rosenblatt writes, “When you love someone, every moment is shadowed by the fear of loss, and when the loss occurs you feel more love than ever.” Making Toast is very much a love story of a man towards the daughter and family he holds so dear.
Another family memoir, also beautifully written, but this time roles are reversed. Will Schwalbe, publishing editor and food blogger, tells the story of his mother, the former director of Admissions at Harvard and a tireless advocate for refugees in far flung locales, and her battle with pancreatic cancer. Mother and son, lovers of literature both, meet for her chemo treatments and in the long hours of hospital waiting begin their own book club. This is a world class reading list nestled inside the tale of what two avid readers learned about life and death from their love of books. Spoiler alert: one of the reasons that I loved this heartfelt tale is that mother and son discuss three of my all time favorite books. Once the literary pair mentioned Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety (1987) Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead (2004) and John O’Hara’s Appointment in Samarra (1934) they had me. If you love reading then you cannot help but love an author who writes, “Reading isn’t the opposite of doing, it’s the opposite of dying.”
If this title had not been written by Lee Woodruff, fellow Westchester-ite and well known philanthropist, journalist and advocate, I would not have touched it. In this tale of family love and healing is the one topic I find almost impossible to read about, the death of a child. But Woodruff is determined that her book should not be seen as a “sad” book but rather the story of how families cause each other pain, endure grief, and grow from the experience and in this, she succeeds. Her characters are like us, good people, flawed in their love for each other, all the while struggling to be better. To my ear, she tells the story of midlife marriage, with its deep love and understanding and its tug of war of expectations and hopes in perfect pitch. Through her characters we see the entire arc of marriage and how different generations have lived through the gleeful early days onto a midlife lull with its threat of infidelity and finally, hopefully, true love and understanding.
Please add to our list and tell us your favorite books below.