Have you ever walked into a bookstore and found yourself completely at a loss? You know there are dozens of books you want to read. Some have been recommended by friends or in literary reviews, others are time-tested classics. You might have even made a list at one point, and yet as soon as you set foot in the store your mind goes blank and you can’t recall a single title or author. It happens to us all the time, and though we enjoy browsing the shelves of independent book stores, we find it helpful to have at least a few specific books in mind. Having recently put together a list of Munchkin’s favorite books, here are a few adult recommendations from our shelves.
The Bookseller of Kabul (Åsne Seierstad) — Written by a Norwegian journalist who was among the first reporters to enter Kabul after the fall of the Taliban in 2001, this non-fiction account follows the family of a man remarkable in some ways and quite orthodox in others. Seierstad starts out with the premise that a man who has devoted his life’s work to the propagation of literature and knowledge in Afghanistan, suffering abuse and imprisonment at the hands of one autocratic regime after another, would be a bastion of liberalism. She spends several months living with his family and is disheartened to learn that this same man is as autocratic at home as the authorities he despises. The result is a heatfelt narrative that walks the line between showing an appreciation for Afghani culture and bemoaning its treatment of women.
Shantaram (Gregory David Roberts) — A good friend had mailed us a copy of this sprawling autobiographical novel, and it sat untouched for well over a year, intimidating us with its girth. D finally picked it up when we went to Lisbon last year and wound up breezing through it. It’s hard to tell fact from fiction, but that hardly detracts from the writing, which is warm, humorous, and pithy, if a tad self-indulgent. The story, loosely based on the real life events that befell its author, chronicles the adventures of an Australian bank robber and heroin addict, who escapes from prison, flees to India with a fake passport, and winds up working with the Bombay mafia while also running a free clinic in one of the city’s slums. It’s an engrossing read, not least of all because the underworld is a topic of endless fascination for those of us who lack firsthand experience of it.
Blind Assassin (Margaret Atwood) — Beautifully intricate story-telling; if you’ve ever read an Atwood novel, you’d expect no less. There is a book within the book, which contains yet a third tale within it. The events are narrated as a form of memoir, with the novel-within-the novel at times foreshadowing and at other times filling in the gaps of the main story. As the tale works up to its denouement, memoir and fiction come together to reveal one hell of a plot twist.
The Namesake (Jhumpa Lahiri) — As with the Interpreter of Maladies, Lahiri’s prose is a warm meditation on the meaning of identity for first-generation immigrants, who are caught in a tug-of-war between the culture of their adoptive country and the traditions of their parents and ancestors. For D, who was ten years old when his family immigrated to the United States, Lahiri strikes a particular chord.
The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and their Epic Quest for Olympic Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics (Daniel James Brown) — S does does not read non-fiction frequently, and even more rarely anything about sports, but this book captivated her in a way she did not expect. At its core, this is a story about beating the odds and finding hope in the most desperate of times. Drawing on the boys’ own journals and vivid memories of a once-in-a-lifetime shared dream, Brown tells an improbable, intimate account of how nine working-class youths from the American West defeated not only the elite teams from the East Coast and Great Britain, but also the German team rowing for Hitler at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
All The Light We Cannot See (Anthony Doerr) — Winner of last year’s Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, this is an intricately-woven tale of a blind 14-year-old French girl and a gadget-obsessed German orphan whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive WWII. Doerr illuminates the way, highlighting our common humanity; against even the longest of odds, people can be good to one another.
Playing The Moldovans At Tennis (Tony Hawks) — This book was a gift from one of our Moldovan friends. The author, a British comedian and amateur tennis player, makes a drunken bet that he can beat all members of Moldova’s national soccer team at tennis, and proceeds to chronicle his misadventures in this tiny post-Soviet country. The writer comes off as a bit of an ass, but the book is enjoyable in spite of the fact that it is difficult at times to relate to its author. Reading it almost twenty years after the events took place, one is struck both by how much Moldova had changed in the intervening time and how much certain things remain rooted to the past.
**Dishonorable Mention** Telegraph Avenue (Michael Chabon) — This book came as a huge disappointment, especially since we both love Michael Chabon and have read most of his other books with joy. The story is both convoluted and contrived, the characters difficult to relate to, and the prose inauthentic. S started it twice but both times dropped it after a handful of chapters; D made it through about a hundred pages before giving up.
Each of the past three years, D has made the same resolution on New Year’s Eve — to read a book per month during the coming year. He failed woefully the first year, finishing only eight books. Last year, he read thirteen. This year, he added a twist, starting a novel in French to go along with his studies. He chose Hélène Grémillon’s debut, Le Confident, which thus far seems well worth the multiple literary prizes it has garnered, though reading a suspenseful novel with the aid of a dictionary sometimes gets a bit frustrating, as one has to choose between advancing at a glacial pace and missing key plot details.
We only brought a handful of books with us when we left Moldova, hoping to stock up on new literature before our next overseas tour. If you have any recommendations to add to our reading list, please share!