THE QUIET AMERICAN -- Graham Greene's classic exploration of love, innocence, and morality in Vietnam
The Quiet American by Graham Greene (1955, William Heinemann; 180 pages)
The popularity of Ken Burns’ documentary The Vietnam War reminded me of my favorite novel that takes place during wartime Vietnam, The Quiet American by Graham Greene. It is important, though, to distinguish right away that Greene’s book was published prior to American involvement in the war, which is precisely one of the reasons I love the book so much. The story itself is so surreal & dark that it could have served as the screenplay for Apocalypse Now! or Platoon. This detail is what affected me so deeply when reading the story of the French experience fighting guerrilla warfare in Vietnam. I couldn’t escape the thought of, ‘If only those making the decisions in the USA had read this…’ because the American experience proved to be very similar to the French experience. History buffs should also check out Robert Miller’s excellent Indochina and Vietnam, a non-fiction book that stresses the American involvement in the war as an extension of the French involvement of the thirty-five year war for the Vietnamese, as complimentary reading to Greene’s story. The protagonist in The Quiet American is a cynical British journalist (just as Greene was in real life) who encounters a young American idealist who also happens to be an undercover CIA operative. The story that follows isn’t just surreal and dark but also strikes at what it means to be human and part of a society. Greene has the ability to string some words together in a single sentence that not only fits the narrative of the story but also makes the reader pause and reflect on the deeper meaning and implications of the sentence. And, after all, isn’t that what all books are supposed to do?
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Recommended by: Andrew
Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut (1969, Delacorte; 288 pages)
Kurt Vonnegut's absurdist classic introduces us to Billy Pilgrim, a man who becomes unstuck in time after he is abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore. In a plot-scrambling display of virtuosity, we follow Pilgrim simultaneously through all phases of his life, concentrating on his (and Vonnegut's) shattering experience as an American prisoner of war who witnesses the firebombing of Dresden during World War 2.
Vonnegut exquisitely tells a war-time tale that is resonant and intriguing, and that focuses on human emotion and incentive, not just on gruesome facts of war.
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Recommended by: Ariadne
THE CATCHER IN THE RYE -- the influential and widely acclaimed novel details two days in the life of 16-year-old Holden Caulfield, confused and disillusioned, searching for the truth and railing against the "phoniness" of the adult world
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (1951, Little, Brown and Company; 240 pages)
Since his debut in 1951 as The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield, the hero-narrator of this classic novel, has been synonymous with "cynical adolescent." Holden narrates the story of a couple of days in his sixteen-year-old life, just after he's been expelled from prep school, in a slang that sounds edgy even today and keeps this novel on banned book lists.
"If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. In the first place, that stuff bores me, and in the second place, my parents would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them."
His constant wry observations about what he encounters, from teachers to phonies (the two of course are not mutually exclusive) capture the essence of the eternal teenage experience of alienation.
Salinger's storytelling is truly reminiscent of a teenage mind. His use of anecdotes also aids in the story's development, and allows the apathetic Holden Caulfield to better express his motives.
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Recommended by: Ariadne
CANNERY ROW -- Steinbeck's humorous and poignant Depression-era classic is filled with hope and heart
Cannery Row by John Steinbeck (1945, Viking Press; 208 pages)
John Steinbeck’s lovely and hilarious classic revolves around the people living in the cannery district of Monterey, California, during the Great Depression. Among them: Doc, a marine biologist; Mack, the leader of a group of derelicts who inhabit a converted fish-meal shack; Dora Flood, who runs the Bear Flag Restaurant (and house of ill repute); and Lee Chong, the local grocer.
Mack and his friends are trying to do something nice for their friend, Doc, who has been good to them without asking for anything in return. Mack hits on the idea that they should throw a thank-you party, and the entire community becomes involved. Unfortunately, the party rages out of control, and Doc’s lab and home are ruined. In an effort to return to Doc’s good graces, Mack and the boys decide to throw another party.
The flow of the main plot is frequently interrupted by short, sometimes darkly humorous vignettes that introduce us to the various denizens of the Row. These vignettes often allude to the cruelty of the natural world.
Steinbeck’s writing style is impeccable, and the way he uses anecdotes to introduce the setting of this story works really well. He also tells his story very plainly, making it more pleasurable to read while still preserving a profound reading experience and an influential story.
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Recommended by: Ariadne
THE IMPOSSIBLE FORTRESS -- a fun, breezy, and funny coming-of-age story wrapped inside a love letter to the '80s
The Impossible Fortress by Jason Rekulak (2017, Simon & Schuster; 304 pages)
The Impossible Fortress, Jason Rekulak’s breezy, funny first novel, is a coming of age story wrapped inside a love letter to the 1980s. It's the story of Billy Marvin, a 14-year-old boy growing up in a small New Jersey town in 1987. Billy is a trailblazer, a computer nerd before there were computer nerds, at a time when computers were just beginning to make their way into people’s homes. When he's not hanging out with his friends, Alf and Clark – both outsiders, like Billy – Billy is holed up in his room programming video games on his Commodore 64. Then Playboy magazine publishes photos of Wheel of Fortune hostess Vanna White, and the trio of friends – too young to just walk into the only store in town that sells the magazine -- Zelinsky’s -- and buy a copy, concoct a Mission Impossible-style caper to get their hands on the magazine. The scheme involves the three nerdy kids enlisting the help of a popular kid with a dark side, and Billy wooing Mary Zelinsky, the overweight daughter of the store’s owner. But Mary is a sharp-as-a-tack expert programmer herself, and, much to his surprise, Billy finds himself growing to really like Mary. As in, like-like. Of course, things go spectacularly awry in ways both hilarious and serious, especially for Billy, leading to another impossible mission for the trio of friends.
The Impossible Fortress has passages that are laugh-out-loud funny – many featuring references to the 1980s -- and others that are quite touching, and the story has some twists that you won’t see coming at all. It’s a light, fun read -- albeit one with some serious turns -- and I’d recommend it for older teens and adults.
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Recommended by: Greg
THE LAST BUS TO WISDOM -- the last novel from a great American storyteller is charming, wise, and slyly funny
Last Bus to Wisdom by Ivan Doig (2016, Riverhead Books; 480 pages)
This is a beautifully written tale about the summer adventures of an imaginative eleven year old boy. Donal Cameron is being raised by his grandmother on a ranch in western Montana. When Gram needs to address some medical issues, Donny is sent to spend the summer with her sister in Wisconsin. Aunt Kate is bossy and tyrannical, setting the scene for a miserable summer. Her henpecked husband, Herman the German, befriends Donny and before long the two find themselves on an unplanned adventure. This is a wonderful book!
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Recommended by: Ann
A MAN CALLED OVE -- a thoughtful exploration of the profound impact one life has on countless others
A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman (2015, Washington Square Press; 337 pages)
At 59, Ove is a grumble Gus of the first degree. Rules are made to be followed, signs are meant to be obeyed, and don’t even get him started about computers and mobile phones. In truth, Ove has been this way his whole life, but he’s gotten worse in the last four years since his wife, Sonia, died, taking with her all the color in a world Ove sees as black-and-white. Ove has decided life without Sonia is not worth living and plans to join her in the next world. But a young couple and their two children (a third is on the way) move in next door, his oldest friend and most feared enemy is about to be forcibly removed to a nursing home, and a street-scarred cat insinuates itself into his life. Suddenly, Ove’s suicide plans get delayed as he helps solve neighborly crises large and small.
The story of Ove is one of transformation, about a grumpy old man who has suffered great loss. Enter a cast of unlikely, diverse characters that turn his world upside down. It’s a fast, feel-good read.
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Recommended by: Ann
ANOTHER BROOKLYN -- a novel that illuminates the formative time when childhood gives way to adulthood, and exquisitely renders a powerful, and fleeting friendship that united four young lives
Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson (2016, Amistad; 192 pages)
Another Brooklyn is the first adult novel in 20 years by Jacqueline Woodson (National Book Award-winning author of Brown Girl Dreaming), a recipient of four Newbery Honor awards.
This novel starts with a punch to your heart in the form of a sentence: "For a long time, my mother wasn´t dead yet."
This is the story of August, a young girl trying to find herself in the midst of danger, loss, silence, memories, and the beauty and burden of growing up in 1970s Brooklyn. The story is based on the memories of August as an adult. She is returning home for the funeral of her father, now having become an Ivy League-educated anthropologist. Her Brooklyn memories, her story, begins in 1973, 20 years earlier, when she moves with her brother and father to the neighborhood following the death of her mother. She is eleven years old and she is in deep denial about her mother´s fate, finding consolation with her friendship to a group of girls who will become her life. Their names are Sylvia, Angela and Gigi. They are four girls "together, amazingly beautiful and terrifyingly alone." It is indeed beautiful to read about them, their relationship, and their coming of age adventures in a turbulent historical period -- the late 1960s and 1970s -- a detail the novel reflects with accuracy and also in a lyrical way.
The prose of Jacqueline Woodson is poetic, tender, exquisite and sensuous, and she masters the most singular of voices. Each page leads the reader to a new secret and a new revelation based on August's memory. "This is memory" becomes, in fact, a motto, and a reminder of the importance of living in the present too.
Recommended to those who love singular voices, heartbreaking stories and lyrical narrative.
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Recommended by: Maite
THE OTHER EINSTEIN -- the story of Einstein's wife, a brilliant physicist in her own right, whose contribution to the special theory of relativity is hotly debated
The Other Einstein by Marie Benedict (2016, Sourcebooks Landmark; 304 pages)
It is the year 1896. Mileva Marić, a twenty year old woman, has chosen a very different path than most of the girls around her. Mileva is smart enough to join an elite group of Zurich male students studying physics, among them Albert Einstein, who takes an interest in her at a moment when her world turns sideways.
The Other Einstein is the story of the brilliant Mile Marić, incredible physicist and Einstein's wife, whose contribution to the special theory of relativity is hotly debated and may have been inspired by her own profound and very personal insight. The author offers us a window into a fascinating woman with an incredible personality whose light suffered in Einstein's enormous shadow.
Marie Benedict bases her work of fiction on a cache of love letters between the couple dated from 1897 to 1903, years when Mileva and Albert were university students first and then a married couple. Those letters were discovered in 1980. The book searches to find the answer to the question of what role Mileva truly played in Albert's "miracle year" of 1905, when she was forced to subsume her academic ambitions and intellect to his ascent, and investigates how she had to disguise her own discoveries and his.
This is a story of another woman in science whose aspirations and contributions suffered from a misogynist society. It is also the story of women's friendship, a fascinating and thoughtful reading. Recommended.
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Recommended by: Maite
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (2015, Vintage; 352 pages)
This is a gorgeous and unsettling book, a haunting portrait of life at the edge in a post-apocalyptic world where some humans try to preserve art, culture and kindness while defending their lives from other human predators.
Arthur Leander, a famous Hollywood actor, had a heart attack onstage during a production of King Lear. Kirsten Raymonde was there when that happened. She never forgot that night, not only for that event but because it was also the night when a devastating flu pandemic arrived in the city. A few weeks later, civilization as we know it came to an end.
We move forward 20 years and we find Kirsten traveling between the settlements of the altered world with a small troupe of musicians and actors. They are the Traveling Symphony, and they have dedicated themselves to keeping the remnants of art and humanity alive. But one day they encounter a violent prophet that will threaten the band's existence.
With action that moves between the old and new world, the author draws connections between the characters and their pasts. This is a book about many things, but above all, about the value of friendship, love and art -- values that do not become obsolete. The writing is beautiful and lyrical, an apocalyptic story that can almost read like a long poem. It is, of course, a book that is hard to put down and one of those readings that reminds you with each page of our mortal condition, and the privileges we enjoy without even realizing it. Great reading for winter evenings in Alaska.
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Recommended by: Maite