Best reads 2021 so far - LoveJo

I hope you enjoy my list! All 5 stars. 🙂

Sarah Mustafah, The Beauty of Your Face

With a wonderful protagonist and robust storytelling, The Beauty of Your Face is so engaging, I couldn’t put it down!  Afaf Rahman, the daughter of Palestinian immigrants, struggles as a teenager to navigate the complex borders of a world in which she doesn’t belong—not in her family, not in her school, not in her community, not in her own skin. She’s, basically, lost. 

Then, on her first visit to a mosque, she has an epiphany; it occurs to her that she is anonymous in this place, and “…it suddenly feels like a chance to start over…” One of many moments which illuminate the dilemmas and nuances of one woman’s Muslim/Palestinian-American life journey.  

Heads up: the book is bracketed with a storyline about Afaf, in future, coming face to face with a shooter at the Muslim girl’s school where she’s the principal. The peril is there for a reason, an effective way of maintaining the looming presence of hatred and intolerance towards “others” that way too many people face in our society. 

Michael Lewis, The Premonition: A Pandemic Story

I’ve never before read anything by the prolific, best-selling Michael Lewis, so the gripping quality of this story caught me totally by surprise. 

Wow! A true-life science and political thriller! A mesmerizing tale of brilliant people—from a 13-year old girl working on a science project and a female local public health officer who’d been preparing for this moment all her life, to an uber-brilliant scientist who skipped his Ph.D. and was given an advanced lab by his university instead, and a doctor with a once-in-a-generation mind capable of exploring and analyzing things before they happen—who worked behind the scenes on data-and intuition-driven strategies for the looming tsunami of the pandemic. They had no authority to act;  but people with power and influence were, it turns out, secretly listening. What difference did they make?

An utterly fascinating and quick read or, in my case, listen. I loved the narrator’s voice, and you know what a difference that can make. 🙂

Ian Cooper, One and All: A Spiritual Perspective on Getting Along

My favorite book of the year so far: my oldest son’s first book, AND one of the most sublime spiritual books I’ve ever read. Can you imagine the depth of my feelings? And even more so because this beautiful person has suffered greatly in his life—perhaps the key to his wisdom and understanding? 

It’s like he’s been stripped bare, and is more able than most to look at what’s there, what’s right in front of us, that drives us apart and could just as well bring us together. There’s clarity and comfort in his writing, as he explores deep questions from 20,000 feet and real life right here on the sidewalk. It all fits together, with both elegantly simple philosophy and nitty gritty action. 

If you’re looking for the the golden thread through these chaotic times, look here. One and All is full of food for thought and heart. 

Heather McGhee, The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together

I’ve been busy recommending this book to everyone I know, saying, “If you are going to read one nonfiction book this year, make this the one.” Why?

Because this is the story of how racism costs us all—told through the numbers.

McGhee is a strategist and economist who worked at the think-tank Demos for almost 20 years (as president for 4), creating and promoting ways of improving people’s lives. She’s smart, kind, curious, and thoroughly engaging. Her statistics are keen and astounding. She’s a storyteller who brings us to a place where we want to know more, where we care, where we get it.

She makes it clear that the idea of zero-sum—if you get more, I get less—is false. I see The Sum of Us as an affirmation instead of the notion that rising tides lift all boats. And she suggests smart, creative pathways forward to a respectful, sustainable society. The one we could have. 

Read—or better yet—listen to this book! McGhee narrates the audiobook with her beautiful voice.

Lucia Berlin, A Manuel for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories

Lucia Berlin was an extraordinary short story writer with an utterly independent mind. Born in Juneau, Alaska, she spent her childhood in mining camps in Idaho, Montana, Arizona and Chile, and as an adult lived in New Mexico, Mexico, New York City, California and Colorado.  

I’m not sure I can put into words how spectacular her writing is, on themes such as addiction, sensuality, work, and relationships in locations ranging from the exotic to the desperate and drab. Every story is alive with curiosity, rich with detail,  unique, and deeply perceptive. Berlin’s views are unusually vibrant and unexpected; at times humorous, at others deeply affecting. 

She had a small, devoted following during her lifetime, and rose to sudden fame 11 years after her death with the publication of this book, which became a New York Times bestseller within two weeks. 

Inevitably surprising and resonant with the ring of truth. There’s no one else like her. Really stunning. 

Nella Larsen, Passing

The bottom line—Nella Larsen was a great writer and this is a great book. Clare and Irene’s relationship is unforgettable, drawn with such tension, mystery, and yearning. Clare is dazzling; always seen from the outside, she is an exquisite enigma who will not be denied, slipping first into a life passing as a white woman, and then, through Irene, into the Black society for which she longs. She’s like quicksilver. 

Irene is a staid, responsible mother and wife, who attempts to cope with Clare’s ever unpredictable, unexpected movements and trying again and again to end their relationship—but she can’t turn away. Clare’s tenuous hold on life provides incredible narrative tension in this great American novel. If you haven’t read it, do!

Elizabeth Strout, Olive Kitteridge and Olive Again

Olive Kitteridge is an outstanding and unusual novel told in short stories, each including at least a glimpse of Olive Kitteridge, so we grow to know her from many points of view. And what a character! One would hardly think of Olive as a likely protagonist, but for Elizabeth Strout’s extraordinary talents.

Olive is old, blunt, large, and a bit cranky, with built-in radar for people in trouble who really don’t want to be bothered by her. But, a junior high school math teacher for years, her former students can’t escape.

I’m so glad I finally read this! Which I did as a result of listening to Strout on the BBC World Book Club Podcast, in which readers from all over the world asked her questions. So good!

Olive Again continues the saga. Another brilliant Elizabeth Strout, featuring the unique, extraordinary, aging Olive, whom I’ve come to appreciate as one of the great characters in 21st Century literature. A truly splendid read! Perhaps especially because I’m getting older, too. 🙂

Margot Livesey, The Boy in the Field

I loved this book! Told from the point of view of two brothers and a sister living in a town near Oxford, England, this is a gripping account of the children finding a boy badly and mysteriously injured on their way home from school, and the effects this experience has on each of them for years to come.

Each child’s voice and perspectives are distinctly different.; and since they share very few of their thoughts about the incident with one another and certainly not with their parents, it feels like a privilege to be allowed into their minds and hearts as they process this one afternoon over the arc of time.

I especially fell for Duncan, the adopted brother, a keenly observant and talented young artist. I also fell for his dog. You’ll see. 🙂 Wonderful writing, the children’s fascinating thoughts, and a well-crafted mystery make this a terrific read.