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Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Six Great Novels To Feast on During the Holidays

Here are six terrific recent reads for you to feast on during the holidays. I've read these over the last few months but am just getting caught up now on pulling some thoughts together. Enjoy, as I did!

The Great Believers, by Rebecca Makkai — I finished this novel more than two months ago, and it still hasn't left me. And I still haven't found anything intelligent to say about it that hasn't already been said. It's extraordinarily powerful. Devastating. Illuminating. Authentic. Harrowing. I loved this book. It's a tough read, to be sure — about the AIDS crisis in the 1980s in Chicago. This will be on everyone's "favorites of the year" list — mine included. It's a magnificent piece of art. (This isn't a spoiler, but pages 334 through 337 of this book absolutely destroyed me — probably the best section of a novel I read all year.)

Charlotte Walsh Likes To Win, by Jo Piazza — The midterms elections are behind us, but this terrific novel about a fierce woman named Charlotte Walsh who is running for Senate in Pennsylvania is good any time. Walsh, a high-powered Silicon Valley executive, is running against your typical terrible old white guy who constantly condescends to her, spreads nasty rumors about her, and engages in just about every possible brand of dirty politics you can imagine. You'll pretty easily recognize him. But Walsh perseveres, and as you read, you realize just how much harder it is for women to run for national office than it is for men.


North, by Scott and Jenny Jurek — I read this for inspiration during the run-up (sorry) to the Chicago Marathon. Jurek is one of my running heroes, so there was a 100 percent chance I was going to love this, but man, he outdid himself this time. The book's about his attempt to break the Fastest Known Time for running the entire Appalachian Trail, heading north from Georgia to Maine. To do so, he'd need to average about 50 miles per day for more than 6 weeks. Seriously?! He and his wife Jenny write alternating parts, him about running, her about what it was like to crew for him. Needless to say, not everything goes according to plan. But part of the inspiration here is how both Scott and Jenny were able to overcome every obstacle, and how they did it together.

Virgil Wander, by Leif Enger — This is just a delightful little slice of life about a small town in the upper Midwest. For fans of Richard Russo and Nickolas Butler, Enger's novel chronicles the eponymous middle-aged theater owner who just survived an accident which has rendered him a little...different. He can't remember adjectives and thinks that he's an intruder in his own life. But this new lease on life — a literal mid-life crisis — allows him to see the world differently. So Virgil, along with a cast of Winesburg-Ohio-esque small-town characters spend their time flying kites, planning festivals, and speculating about the mysterious disappearance of one of their town heroes, a former minor league baseball player who died in a plane crash over Lake Superior...or did he? But not everything is as pleasant as it seems. The town is slowly dying and some of its residents aren't as nice as the others. A powerful finish completes a terrifically satisfying reading experience here.

Anatomy of a Miracle, by Jonathan Miles — This was a book I saved all year, to read something I knew I'd love when I really needed something good. And good, it is. It's a thorough and thoughtful examination of our current culture, and some of the absolute absurdities of it — that people tend to shoehorn events and their implications into their current worldview instead of re-examining or re-evaluating their worldview based on new information. (To paraphrase something Jon Stewart once said: I used to think people's reality influenced their politics. Now it's clear people's politics influences their reality.) The story is about a paralyzed Afghanistan veteran named Cameron Harris, who one day, gets out of his wheelchair and walks. There's no medical explanation, so naturally religious groups descend upon Biloxi, Mississippi, the site of this wondrous miracle. But is it a miracle? Miles is right on target here about how the media covers politically charged events, how celebrity can infect morality (both of the celebrity and the people who "worship" him/her), and the age-old debate of science vs. religion. Cameron is a deeply sympathetic character, especially as we learn more about him. And Miles nails our current zeitgeist right on the head.

The Library At Mount Char, by Scott Hawkins — This strange, genre-bending novel came highly recommended by a number of readers whose opinions I trust implicitly. And they were not wrong. What fun! It's super inventive, and really, really smart. It's a little like if a grown-up Harry Potter story met X-Men met a crime thriller. Just insane! I can't do this justice with a pithy description, so you'll have to check this one out on your own.

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